Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
Alaska Region, October 29, 2010
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In July this year, Refuge Biologist Susan Savage[uf&ws1]  led efforts to capture tundra swans in the northern Alaska Peninsula.  Izembek Refuge led the effort on the southern Alaska Peninsula.  These handsome birds have been studied here since 2006 because of concerns about influenza.


Tundra swans travelling in Alaska may visit eastern Asia.  Birds from southeastern Asia that are infected with Asian Avian Influenza virus (HPH5N1-AI) contact the eastern Asia bird populations so it is possible that Alaskan swans might be carrying this disease[uf&ws2] .  Tundra swans also share habitat with northern pintails who are even more likely to contract H5N1 in their wintering locations.  To find out whether or not Alaskan tundra swans might be carrying AI, four offices joined together to do field research: the Alaska Peninsula/Becharof National Wildlife Refuge, the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, Region 7 Migratory Bird Management office, and the US Geological Survey-Alaska Science Center.


Since the birds were to be captured, a variety of other research could occur.  Banding, blood samples, and feather samples help to create a picture of where swans go on their migration routes, whether one population breeds with another, what levels of lead and mercury the birds have been exposed to, whether the birds carried AI, and so on. 


Actually catching the birds is a tricky bit of work.  Early efforts were hampered by timing: too early in July and the birds have not yet molted their flight feathers.  In 2010, having learned the lessons of the past, the field crew showed up July 22.  Using a helicopter, birds without cygnets were spotted.  The aircraft landed nearby to drop folks off.  Two or three crew members with large salmon nets then lurked behind bushes or other cover while the helicopter attempted to drive the birds towards the hidden nets. 


If the fleeing bird spotted a person, it changed course; and chasing swans on foot over tussocky tundra generally does not result in a captured bird.  When the hunt met with success, the helicopter landed, and the banding and sampling began.  In 2010, 210 birds were caught.  It took four days to catch the first 104 on the Northern Alaska Peninsula and 5 days for the remaining 106 in the Southern Alaska Peninsula.  This was two days ahead of schedule, even with weather and other delays.  The project also came in under-budget.


Collaring and banding the birds has been very productive in the earlier years of the study.  About 68% of the birds have been reported again, often more than once.  While most were seen again in Alaska, others were reported seen in Washington, California, Oregon, British Columbia, Montana, Idaho, and Alberta. 


In four years of sampling, only 6 swans carried AI, but none had H5 or N1 (the variants that have caused illness and death in humans and domestic birds).  Anyone who spots a bird with a collar or leg band is encouraged to report the sighting to Susan Savage at Becharof National Wildlife Refuge or to the Banding Lab at http://www.reportband.gov/


Contact Info: Julia Pinnix, 907-246-1211, Julia_Pinnix@fws.gov
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