Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
MERCED NWR: Long-Distance Traveler -- Ross’ Goose Banded in Canada Found at the Merced NWR
California-Nevada Offices , January 30, 2014
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Ross' Geese in a wetland at the San Joaquin River NWR.
Ross' Geese in a wetland at the San Joaquin River NWR. - Photo Credit: Mike Peters/USFWS
A mixed group of Ross' and Snow Geese at the Merced NWR.  Each winter, over 50,000
A mixed group of Ross' and Snow Geese at the Merced NWR. Each winter, over 50,000 "white" geese use the refuge. - Photo Credit: Richard Albers/USFWS
Leg band number 1847-62565 recovered from an avian cholera-stricken Ross' Goose at the Merced NWR in January 2014.
Leg band number 1847-62565 recovered from an avian cholera-stricken Ross' Goose at the Merced NWR in January 2014. - Photo Credit: USFWS

By Madeline Yancey

In mid-January, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff recovered a Ross’ goose from a wetland unit of the Merced National Wildlife Refuge located in California’s San Joaquin Valley near the city of Merced. The goose sported an aluminum leg band numbered 1847-62565 and had apparently succumbed to avian cholera – a bacterial infection that often breaks out among large populations of waterfowl when they are concentrated into small habitat patches while on their wintering grounds.

Initially, after submitting the band number to The North American Bird Banding Program (Bird Banding Laboratory at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland) it was learned that Ross’ Goose #1847-62565 was a male that came into possession of his band on August 6, 2008, courtesy of wildlife biologists in the Simpson River Delta, Nunavut, Canada. Those biologists determined the goose was already at least one year old. A little research via Google Earth revealed it flew about 2,500 miles – one way, as the crow flies – to spend the winter at the Merced NWR.

However, that was only the beginning. Humans have been placing “bands” on the legs of birds to keep track of them for hundreds of years – since the late 1500s in Europe. John James Audubon, noted American naturalist and painter, provided the first records of bird banding in North America in 1803 when he “banded” a brood of eastern phoebes by tying silver cords to their legs in a neighborhood near Philadelphia. The following year he was able to identify two of the birds when they returned to the neighborhood.

Systematic scientific bird banding began in North America in 1902 when Dr. Paul Bartsch of the Smithsonian Institution banded 23 black-crowned night herons in Washington, D.C. Bartsch used serially-numbered bands inscribed with the year and a “Return to Smithsonian Institution” address. The first band was recovered and returned to him later that year. In 1920, Frederick C. Lincoln, a biologist with the U.S. Biological Survey, began to develop and expand the bird banding program into a continental program that remains a cornerstone of avian research, management, and conservation.

Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey work in concert with their Canadian counterparts, the Canadian Wildlife Service and Environment Canada to study and monitor the reproductive success, population growth, dispersal, and migration patterns of migratory waterfowl along the Pacific, Central, Mississippi, and Atlantic flyways of North America. Each year ducks and geese are banded throughout the breeding or “production” areas in the United States and Canada just prior to hunting seasons. Recovery of banded birds by waterfowl hunters provides valuable information used to establish subsequent hunting regulations. For harvested species like the Ross’ goose, the data collected when hunters submit the information from recovered bands aids in developing the details of hunting regulations like the length of the upcoming hunting seasons and bag limits for individual waterfowl species. Data from band recoveries also helps biologists and waterfowl managers assess harvest pressure from hunting on individual species and populations.

Merced NWR’s Ross’ goose began life near Karrak Lake – a shallow lake not more than three feet deep – in the Simpson River Delta in Canada. The Simpson River flows into the Queen Maud Gulf just southeast of Victoria Island north of the Arctic Circle. He was a member of a combined Snow and Ross’ goose colony numbering in excess of one million birds. It is likely this goose has spent many winters on or near the Merced NWR, but the wetlands there, surrounded by grasslands and agriculture fields are very different from where he spent his summers. This goose’s summer home was on the Queen Maud Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary. The sanctuary was established in 1961 and at 62,800 square kilometers, it is the largest migratory bird sanctuary in Canada. The habitat there is absolutely flat lowland that is always wet and devoid of trees. The tallest vegetation consists of knee to mid-thigh high shrubs. There are broad expanses of sedge meadows interspersed with grassy hummocks – just the kind of habitat a Ross’ goose needs to rear a brood of rapidly growing goslings.

Karrak Lake is the site of the Arctic Ecosystem Research Station, a long-term research station that has been in place since the early 1990s. The biological team has been there banding snow and Ross’ geese annually for more than 20 years. The team monitors nest plots in which they identify flightless birds – juveniles and molting adults – to fit with leg bands. Each season personnel from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service travel to Karrak Lake, and other research stations in the region, to work side-by-side with their Canadian counterparts. Working together the teams band 12 to 14 thousand geese each year. Two decades of banding efforts have provided data allowing the team to establish the size and spatial extent of the breeding colony, average nest initiation dates, survival rates, and population distribution. One member of the research team said that information learned from the long-term banding program at Queen Maud Gulf has revealed that North America has an “overabundance” of white (Snow and Ross’) geese. The white goose populations in the Queen Maud Gulf region and elsewhere have grown so large as to have negative impacts on Arctic ecosystems, others species, and themselves. Therefore, waterfowl managers are able to allow liberal harvest regulations so as to mitigate the species’ population growth and protect the finite habitat resource.

Taking a few moments to submit the information from a small metal band off the leg of a single Ross’ goose revealed the when, what, and where of the life of that goose. However, just a little bit of digging opened the door to history, geography, and a partnership between two countries – both working to protect and conserve migratory bird populations of North America.

Madeline Yancey is a Park Ranger (Visitor Services) at the San Luis NWR Complex in California.

Contact Info: Jack Sparks, 209-826-3508, jack_sparks@fws.gov
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