My Montana

My Montana
My Montana

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Duck Roundup at Red Rocks Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Last Monday was the first day of a five-day baby lesser scaup roundup so the ducklings can be banded.  This is part of a decade-long study to try and figure out what environmental changes are impacting scaup numbers. And returned band data from ducks taken by hunters will show what, if any effect hunting has on the duck population.

The baby ducks live in large multifamily creches with one or more hens.  The babies may move from one group of ducks to another over time. So we can capture them without worrying about getting them back in the same group of ducks.

Getting on the water

First a team of researchers and volunteers  set up  made of small gauge wire circular trap  with long mesh nets extending out of it in a wide V. The trap has an opening  with "gates" of  extra wire which a worker will hold closed as soon as the ducks enter the trap. These are diving ducks and they will try to escape by either diving back under our boats or diving under the trap or the nets that lead to it. So the first job of the day, was to push the bottom of nets which were  strung on a lead wire, into the mud.

Nick and Sarah waling back after using their paddles to get the bottom of the trap pushed into the muc

Then the drivers, which consist of staff and volunteers, in paddle craft, work to drive the ducklings into the nets and then down the isle created by the nets. We start maybe a quarter of a mile away, but we paddle out and around the pathway we plan to drive them.  Cody deployed various members of the group at spaces between islands of bulrushes to prevent the birds from sneaking back around and escaping. The last of us were the drivers, but the others joined us as we passed their positions.  Lower Red Rock Lake is a big duck hatchery and is closed to recreational paddling during the spring and summer, so getting to see if from a canoe was another perk.

Paddlers deploying along the route to stop the ducks from escaping

Group of ducks and grebes being pushed - soon only the ducklings will remain

 When all are in the pen, workers scoop them up in dip nets and put them in special, ventilated cardboard boxes and bring them to shore.

Cody and Jeff are scooping up ducklings while Nic holds the box

We did two drives on Tuesday, the day I worked. Three of the paddlers turned into banders and worked that batch of about twenty-five ducks, while the rest of up gathered up another batch.  (I only paddled and took pictures since most moments hurt.)  The winds built to an uncomfortable level in the afternoon.  I was in a little canoe, borrowed from Steve, and started having trouble holding my point.  Then when we got to the trap, we saw three sections of net with the bottoms out and blowing in the wind.  Steve and Cody raced to that section and headed the ducklings off it.  Cody jumped into the water and blocked that exit with his canoe while the rest of us splashed our paddles to make the ducklings swim into the trap. I was so glad to see that we got most of them trapped after thinking we would lose them all.

But it was a wild time, getting the birds out of the trap as fast as possible.  The ducks repeatedly dive and can get hypothermic under these conditions. The workers, grab them with their hands and scoop them up with large dip nets. Finally they have to feel all around the trap for submerged ducklings.  The birds are put into vented cardboard boxes.  We had previously put pads on the bottom so the ducklings could drain and dry off. As soon as we had all the ducklings in boxes, we hauled them to shore.

There we first sexed them  and split them into  boxes of  just males or females.
Cody demonstrating how to sex - this takes a lot of practice to get the sex parts visible

This one is a male

Then two teams of helpers got to work, one banding each sex. A band is put on each bird that is big enough.  Birds who are so small that they could pull their foot through the band are tagged with web clips. These are temporary and when this banding is done again in September, all birds with web tags will get a permanent band.

New bands this year are marine grade aluminum and are much harder to use but
 should last the life of the bird

Small duckling getting a web tag

 Measurements are taken of the bill to back-of-the head length and the length of the tarsus -  the bone between the foot and the "knee".

Measuring head-bill length - this got to be my job during banding

Measuring the tarsus

Then they are weighed by hooking a little scale right into the band. or, they are dropped into a little cone that is hooked to the scale.

Weighing the duckling as soon as he gets still

Nick and Sarah hauling the ducklings back to the trap area to release them
One or the most important jobs is to get all the data on each duckling recorded in the proper place on the data form and to write legibly enough to be able to read it when it is put into the database.

Then they are ready to be taken back to the general area where they were captured, and released.

Lesser scaup will live up to seven years in the wild. Hunters who kill a bird with a band are asked give the information on the duck bands to the Bird Banding Laboratory by phone or on-line. The information is then sent back to the banding entity, so the refuge can start to document the effect of hunting on this population of lesser scaup. And some birds get recaptured, giving more information about their lives.

The pictures of the actual banding operation are from Monday.   The banding group only got nine birds so Cody, the master's candidate who is doing research on lesser scaup, had lots of time to teach us how to do each part of the job to get the birds sexed,  marked with bands or web tags, measured, and weighed. I knew I would be too busy, getting covered in duckling poop while helping to sex them, then measuring the tarsus when we had our work station set up.

The duck roundup gave me another present.  While at Science Wednesday, eating potluck, a guy said, "Marilyn, what are you doing here?" I looked up to see Joe, my favorite bunkmate at Sacramento NWR. He is doing field work in Idaho and has friends who got him involved with the roundup. That's what I love about being a hobo - I get to see my old friends in new places. But I was too sore to get to work with him the following day.

I had taken a hard fall while hiking two days earlier.  I fell on my camera which survived,  but I did serious damage to my ribs. I wasn't hurting badly enough not to paddle, but I've been hurting much more ever since. The slightest movement still hurts and it takes me several seconds to retrieve anything I drop.  I had to pack up and move to the Bison Range last Friday and ended up needing help to load and unload my car. But I did get permission to leave my trailer un vacuumed, so all was not lost.

 I'll be leaving  for a visit to my daughter and son-in-law in Ottawa, as this blog comes out, and hope to get to catch up on blogs and also recover.  Oh yes, I get to go back to Red Rock Lakes NWR next summer. I plan to bring my canoe so I'll get to do lots more paddling. Hopefully I'll also get in several visits to Yellowstone.