My Montana

My Montana
My Montana

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Scaup Roundup: Three Days of Bliss

August 19-21

Better grab a cup of coffee - this is long. 

Last week I got to help with the lesser scaup roundup.  This has been going on for  five days in both August and September of each year for the last several years as part of several ongoing research projects. The young of the year, and a few molting adults are trapped and banded.  Data is gathered on each bird includes:  the sex and age, the length of the tarsus - which would be like measuring our knee to our ankle, the distance from a notch on the back of the head to the bill, and the weight.

The huge trap has to be moved to a couple of different places during the week. Cody Dean, a graduate student, has been running the scaup roundup the two years I've been here.  He uses a rowboat to haul out the trap parts as well as the boxes we use to haul the birds back to shore to process.  The rest of us are in canoes or kayaks. He also hauls a canoe out to the trap location and then uses it to round up the ducks, while the skiff is hidden near the trap.

Putting up the net is a huge job involving several people. It takes about an hour to get it up.  First two lines of poles are pushed into the mud to form a 'V'.  At the bottom of the 'V', there is a space where fine wire piece of fencing is formed into a circle with enough fence left over to be able to close the circle after the ducks are driven in it. Netting is strung on each arm of the 'V'.  Finally the netting and wire fencing are all tied to the poles.  Then the bottom must be stretched out from the poles and sunk into the mud so the birds can't dive under the trap and escape. On subsequent days, we only have to restick the bottom of the net tightly into the mud.

The poles have been put into place in two straight lines and the netting is being played out of it's storage box

Meanwhile, the other arm of the net  is also being installed

The wire forms the actual trap and will have flaps extending past the two poles in the picture. 

The trap is attached to the poles as are the ends of two nets -
a lot of twist ties are used

Finally a paddle is used to push the bottom of the nets deep into the mud
 so birds can't dive under them

We also have to take the holding boxes, stored flat each day put them back together, then add a bottom and and a pad to help dry the birds.

Building the boxes before going out to drive the ducks to the trap

When the net is ready to hold birds, we all start paddling off per Cody's instructions. We have to block escape routes on the way back to the net and gently push the birds to swim in the direction of the net.  So we have outriders that push birds both towards a center line and the net. We push the furthest groups (called creches) of young birds into groups closer to the net and finally we close in on them from three sides and push them along the extended arms of the net to the middle wire circle.

Birds swimming toward the trap.  Can you spot two species that are caught up with the scaup?
Smoky skies made it hard for me to show more distant birds.

Then controlled chaos ensues.  By this time several people are out of their boats and are pushing the catch  through the narrow opening into the circular fence.  One guy has been assigned to grap the two ends of the fencing and hold them together after other people jump into the enclosure behind the birds.  Some of the more knowledgeable birds are diving back under the boats.  Cody has ducked under an net arm of the trap and grabbed the skiff, now full of open boxes and pulled it up and has handed large dip nets to the people in the enclosure.  Other people gang up on or around the skiff the everyone works really hard and fast to get the ducklings out of the trap and  into boxes and to separate the larger ducks from the small ones - some we caught were only a week old while others were molting adults.  We want to get the birds dry and resting as soon as possible to put the least stress on them.

Ducklings are grabbed with big dip nets and also just by hand, then handed off to people on the skiff to sort into boxes

The guy in front is holding the trap shut while Cody is helping to lift a net full of birds and the women in the back are putting ducks into boxes. 

We caught several species of birds we didn't want.  This baby American coot was so ugly, we had to take its picture.

A face only a mother could love - juvenile coot

After we get the birds into boxes, they are distributed among the canoes and we all paddle hard back to shore to process the birds. The birds are brought up and put in the shade of the trucks.  Birds are transferred to new boxes with dry pads. Then empty boxes are set up and the birds sexed. Females are put at one end of the truck and males to the other.  Then we form into two  or more groups to process them.

A box of ducklings waiting to be processed

Sexing the birds - we have to peel back the cloaca - beginners can tell males but all possible females are double checked by the experts to be sure we didn't miss some males

Processing the birds requires a recorder to enter the data, a bander,  a person to measure the tarsus, or distance from the knee to the ankle on the bird, a person to measure the head/beak length, and a person to weigh the bird. I got to do all these jobs on various days,  except the actual banding. Some of the birds are too tiny to band, so we put on a toe clip and hope to catch them on the roundup we'll do in September, when they will get a band. 

Getting the band on the bird is the hardest work and only done by a few experts

Measuring the distance from the back of the head to the bill

Measuring the tarsus length

Weighing the duckling - here by a researcher in training

One of our smaller researchers and larger ducks caught - on the way to release a group of birds

As soon as we get a good group of bird processed, we release them to form a new creche
and thus be better protected from predators.  That is a favorite of the children who each
hold one bird to release on the count of three

A few of the adult females were nose tagged with markers that are different colors and shapes, as well as have different colored and shaped attachments, so they can be identified in the field without having to be recaptured. Some of these may return to nest her next year.

A female duck with the bill marked so she can be observed at a distance in future years

Can this much fun be counted as work? Picture of me by Cody

Even though I ended up covered in duck poop every day

Cody just reported that in the four days of catching lesser scaup, we processed six hundred and fifty ducks.  And we'll be doing this again in September.  Can't wait. 

Click on the picture to see more Wild Bird Wednesday blogs.