Visual prey availability and distribution of foraging little auks (Alle alle) in the shelf waters of West Spitsbergen
As diving seabirds use vision underwater, it is presumed they should preferentially select sites where their preferred food items are not only abundant but also clearly visible. To test this, we studied the optical properties of the seawater in the West Spitsbergen Shelf, in combination with zooplankton abundance in the feeding grounds of the planktivorous little auks from the nearby colonies in Hornsund. We estimated the relative attractiveness of the foraging sites using a novel parameter—visual prey availability (VPAv), which relates density and proportion of the preferred food item (Calanus glacialis) of the little auk, in total zooplankton, to the optical properties of the seawater. We found a significant positive correlation between the density of foraging little auks and VPAv values. Birds chose areas where C. glacialis was both abundant and clearly visible, because of the clarity of the water and low proportion of other zooplankton species. The birds avoided foraging over the warmer Atlantic-type waters, characterised by a high abundance of zooplankton taxa mostly ignored by birds and where VPAv values were low. VPAv values could potentially also be applied to other visual planktivores for which prey preference and visual acuity are known.