Waterfowl Banding Blog


The Western Canada Cooperative Waterfowl Banding Program (WCCWBP)

WCCWBP is a long-term, large- scale pre-season waterfowl banding program. The program is a joint effort between the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), state and provincial wildlife management agencies, the Flyway Councils, First Nations, and non- governmental waterfowl advocacy and research organizations.

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Every year ducks are banded throughout North America, with increased efforts in the prairie-pothole regions of the United States and Canada. This cooperative effort has been ongoing since the early 1950s. WCCWBP banding data have increased our knowledge of waterfowl population dynamics and helped inform management decisions. Banding and recovery data are a critical input for the annual Adaptive Harvest Management (AHM) process.

Below are detailed accounts from crew leaders out in the field that band in Canada during the month of August each year. This effort consists of eight USFWS- run banding stations throughout the provinces of Manitoba (MB), Saskatchewan (SK), Alberta (AB) and the Northwest Territories (NT) and one Mississippi Flyway- run banding station located in Saskatchewan. All efforts are made to satisfy the banding needs presented in the draft 2013 Banding Needs Assessment. The overall objectives of the banding program are:

  1. Determine the distribution of harvest of birds from various breeding and to define the breeding source of birds harvested in a specific area. This information is developed from band recovery data.
  2. Determine changes that may occur in harvests of various populations. This information is obtained by studying band recovery and/or harvest rates.
  3. Determine a measure of productivity of breeding populations. This information is developed by adjusting age ratios in wing survey data by the relative vulnerability of juveniles and adults from preseason band recovery information.
  4. Determine annual or long-term survival rates of specific populations. This information is obtained by analyzing band recoveries accumulated over a period of years.

The text above was taken from the following report: Yates, S.F. 2014. Western Canada Cooperative Banding Program-Final Report 2014. USFWS. 116 pages.


Waterfowl banding takes place in August. To view more waterfowl banding photos, please visit our  Flickr website


USFWS employee steve olson with swan. USFWS

Desert Paths

Written by Joseph Sands

Oregon Area

Lake County, Oregon covers an area nearly twice the size of Connecticut, and is home to more cows than people, but people have lived there for at least 14,000 years. In the Pleistocene, gigantic lakes covered huge portions of the Great Basin, and attracted large numbers of waterfowl and other wildlife. The areas around these massive shores were home to peoples long since lost to history.

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The lakes have largely dried up though a few large shallow basins remain, and their marshes still attract large numbers of waterfowl that breed in the summer, increase their abundance in the fall and move south as the wetlands freeze.  They come back again in the spring as they migrate north to start the cycle over.  It’s an old land; some of the oldest rocks in Oregon are exposed in a geography of upheaval as the earth’s crust is stretched apart.  It’s a place where ancient and more recent history meet, and afternoon winds kick alkali dust off the playa.

I have my own small piece of history intertwined in this vast landscape of basin and range.  I grew up in a small town in southwestern Oregon and my high school played football each fall in another small town in south-central Oregon (the long road trip alternating each season).  After the games a couple of friends, our dads, and I would stay the weekend to hunt waterfowl.  We did this for four years from 1996 to 1999, and it was always a great time.  I killed my first ducks and first California quail in that area.  We hunted all over, way back in wetlands, and out in the uplands.   Around the time I was a junior in high school I couldn’t explain why, but I realized I might be interested in becoming a wildlife biologist.  This was influenced greatly by these trips.  As a teenager, the area we hunted was one of my favorite places to go.  I was awed by the natural beauty of the region and the panoramic views from the uplift of Winter Rim.  I loved the cold, early, mornings, hot coffee, and working with hunting dogs all day.  In the fall of 2000, I started as a freshman at Oregon State University in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Science.

Fast forward twenty years and a lot of life has happened: marriage, a child, graduate school and post-doctoral work at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, an English pointer and a Labrador retriever, a job with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, another child, a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Regional Office in Portland, Oregon, and another child.  Most aspects of life are unpredictable.  As is evident from other blogs in this series, COVID-19 threw a hitch in to normal USFWS banding operations.  But changes that are disappointing at first have potential to create opportunities that would have otherwise gone unexplored. Normally Steve Olson and I would be in the Northwest Territories banding ducks, but travel restrictions changed that.  After some deliberation about where to band, Steve decided that south-central Oregon, in the vicinity of the areas made so special to me in my youth, would be a good place to put some effort in to duck banding (See Contingency Plan with Contingencies by Steve Olson).  It was a good decision.

Having the opportunity to do field work as a professional in an area with so much personal meaning to me was great.  I’ve been lucky to see a lot of great places in my career, and being there didn’t disappoint.  We caught over 1,800 ducks, nearly all of which were mallards.  We got the chance to nightlight birds with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and assist with their effort.  The double duty days of our own work coupled with theirs was worth it.  A month of being immersed in the world of waterfowl is always worth it.  And I don’t mean the professional world so much, but their actual world.  You’re out there in the marsh observing birds, watching their movements, seeing miniature migration events.  It’s not easy to verbalize.  The pleasure in this is more visceral.  It reminded me of being a skinny teenager in the 1990s hoping to get some birds for my young dog and learning how to do things out there the right way.  I can’t wait to bring my own kids out this fall and start them down their own paths in the desert.

Duck Banding Recipe Roundup
No matter where you are in the world, life is too short to eat poorly.  Especially after long days in the marsh.  Our banding crew made a lot of “parking lot” meals on a two burner propane grill and a small charcoal grill, while eating canned sardine and crackers as appetizers.  Here are two of our favorites.

1,000 Bird Burgers
2 lbs ground beef (recommend 80% lean)
Johnny’s Seasoning Salt
Thousand Island dressing
Cheddar cheese
Hamburger buns of choice

Form beef in to quarter lb patties.  Season liberally with Johnny’s.  Grill on cast iron skillet on med-high heat until outside of burgers are caramelized and done to medium rare/medium (or well done if you’re one of those people).  Place cheese on burger and melt.  Spread Thousand Island dressing on bun and top with tomato and lettuce (lettuce goes on top of cheese tomato on top lettuce; don’t mess this up).  Ketchup and mustard optional.

Note: Tastes best after 1,000 birds are banded in a month! 

Elk Chorizo Black Bean Burritos
2 lbs elk chorizo
1 can black beans
1 onion
1 bay leaf
1 pack tortillas
Monterrey jack and cheddar cheese (shredded).
2 tomatoes (diced)

Brown chorizo in dutch oven (it helps to have a friend who made homemade elk chorizo and gave you 2 lbs of it.  Thanks Ben Miller.).  Add onion and cook until translucent.  Add bay leaf.  Rinse black beans and add to mix.  Cook at least 20-30 mins on low-med heat.  Can simmer longer if necessary; as long as you don’t burn the mixture the long cook time will blend flavors nicely.  Heat up cast iron skillet and place a tortilla.  It will puff a bit.  Turn tortilla and set on a side plate.  Fill tortillas with chorizo mixture and top with tomatoes and jack/cheddar cheese.

Elk Chorizo Burritos
pot cokking on a grill. USFWS

Sands Mallards
man holding a mallard by a truck, USFWS

Scenery of the area
A view of a lanscape, USFWS


USFWS employee steve olson with swan. USFWS

The Northeast Montana banding crew wraps up a successful season

Written by Dave Fronczak

Northeast Montana Area

The banding season is over and we tallied the numbers.  At the northeast Montana banding station, the assembled crew of Migratory Bird Management Biologists from Minnesota, Colorado, and New Mexico, banded almost 1200 ducks and a handful of coots.  The proportion of young/adult caught among all ducks caught totaled 80%.

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Although the production maybe a little biased high, due to the possibility of differential migration among adults.  We had many challenges to overcome, dry conditions, hot weather (average high was 91°F), lack of target species responding to bait due to the heat, mesopredators mucking up traps, and yes, Covid-19.  However, with the listed challenges, I would call this a successful year.

This was the first year that rocket-nets were used on refuge lands in this area. .  Rocket-nets had been an effective tool used by biologists since the 1970’s.  Their primary advantage are to capture a large number of birds in a short amount of time.  Then why don’t we exclusively use rocket-nets?  The answer is that sites for rocket-nets need to be prepped.  Mowing, spray or disking, and importantly, time to get birds on bait, are all necessary to establish a proper or permanent rocket-net site.  Swim-in traps are still the preferred method among banders, because you can prepare a site in a few hours.  However, rocket-nets can be a useful and effective tool.  Many Refuges established designated areas for rocket-nets throughout North America.  However, rocket-net banding can be labor intensive and not necessary feasible for all refuge programs.

We would like to thank the the local NWR staff, for their outstanding support and advice during the operation.  Without their assistance, operations would be impossible.  We would also like to extend our appreciation to the local farmers and grain elevator for providing grain towards the operation.  Moreover, I would like to thank Kammie Kruse (FWS-MBM) and Phil Thorpe (FWS-MBS) for their hard work, their banding inputs, and their comminatory while in Montana.

Northern pintails at a northeast Montana rocket-net bait site.
Northern pintails, Montana rocket-net bait site. USFWS

Prepping a rocket-net site for a morning shot at a northeast Montana banding site. Photo By: Kammie Kruse
Prepping a rocket-net site for a morning shot, Credit Kammie Kruse, USFWS

2020 Northeast Montana Banding Crew: Kammie Kruse (FWS-MBM, New Mexico)
Women holding duck, USFWS

2020 Northeast Montana Banding Crew: Phil Thorpe (FWS-MBS, Colorado)
Man holding duck USFWS

2020 Northeast Montana Banding Crew: Dave Fronczak (FWS-MBM, Minnesota)
Man holding duck USFWS


Back-Roads Waterfowl Trapping

Written by Walt Rhodes

The Dakotas and Montana Area

Staring at a United States roadmap, it is hard to miss the web of interstate highways that crisscross the country like the tunnels of an ant farm.

Experiences can be had along these byways but for the adventurous looking to investigate the weaves in the fabric of this country the real journeys are found on the American backroads.

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One example is a stop at a roadside stand or store. Interesting finds can be had at these places that range from a hand-painted sign advertising fresh eggs or produce to more elaborate electric posts that point a treasure hunter to the best fried chicken or rare antiques, such a well-seasoned cast iron pan or shift handle for a ’65 Mustang.  Each stop is unique in its own way.

Waterfowl trapping for banding isn’t much different.

Where I run a banding crew in Canada it is not uncommon for us to drive a 100-mile trip daily running our trapline, which is the term used to define a route along which traps are set. In my case, the trapline consists of four to five sites that may have, on average, anywhere from two to five baited traps per site. We usually target mallards because they drive regulation models, but each site ends up taking on its own identity, much like a roadside store. Wetland A may be capturing a lot of mallards whereas wetland B may be catching redheads. If one site’s traps seem to be maxing out on capacity it is not uncommon to add more traps. If a site’s production declines then we close it down.

Such was the case for us in South Dakota. We were running five sites at one point with varied success. It was challenging early in the month to assess what was happening because our catch was so limited for various reasons.  Two to three sites were consistently catching some birds, however, towards the end of the month things began to pick up and a leader quickly emerged.

A site we named Lone Tree had been the only producer of wood ducks all month but then a few mallards began showing up, and then more, and then some more. Another site called Carl’s had been a great mallard producer but the water started evaporating under the withering triple-digit temperatures and before long it barely covered the toe of our boots, and that was after sinking in the mud! The mallard catch basically declined with the water. We set another site, Double D (due to the landowner’s name), late in the month but it was slow to produce. For the remaining days, the strategy was clear – load Lone Tree with traps.

Lone Tree grew from three to nine traps over three days as we tore down non-producing sites. We had discovered our back-roads treasure. Setting so many traps at a site was a first for both me and colleague and crew partner, Terry Liddick. The most traps I had set before at a site was seven.  But the mallards kept obliging and before long we were banding daily approximately 16 mallards per trap, which we called “freshies”, and that was in addition to the 10-20 birds per trap that were already banded and we released.

We ended up banding 1,564 ducks, which included 1,272 mallards (a pre-season banding record for the refuge), 164 wood ducks, 88 blue-winged teal, 23 Northern pintails, 11 gadwalls, and three redheads and green-winged teal each.

When I explain banding to friends or holiday party attendees I tell them that each trap site is like Christmas morning because you don’t know what each will produce on a daily basis. It is analogous to unwrapping a present.

Each morning as Terry and I crested the hill that overlooked Lone Tree anticipation mounted. It was no different than getting out of my truck, glancing at the dusty sign proclaiming the best boiled peanuts and ice-cold soda while I pulled open the rickety screen door to the store.

Happiness awaited.


USFWS employee steve olson with swan. USFWS

Contingency Plan with Contingencies

Written by Steve Olson

Oregon Area

What a spring and summer!  First, our breeding waterfowl and habitat survey was cancelled.  Then banding in Canada was on the fritz and by late June, we were delving into contingency plans in case we were unable to band ducks in Canada.

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Eventually, we learned that we could embark on a more domestic operation in the Lower 48.  If you know me, I love snuggling into a good contingency plan full of contingencies! 

Throughout the contingency plan planning process, we focused on greatest data needs, and these boiled down to Flyway- and State-specific banding needs.  We then had to address state, federal, and non-government organization needs and issues, all while addressing all COVID-19 concerns, mitigation, logistics, and safety. 

One of the greatest models of wildlife management and conservation was the advent of the Flyway system for waterfowl.  Throughout the Flyway system’s history stocks of species and groups of birds have be defined and refined, and split and grouped.  This year, when evaluating all data needs, concerns, logistics, and shortfalls, we migrated and refocused our normal Canadian banding effort to one Atlantic Flyway banding crew (focused on multi-stock), four Mississippi and Central Flyway crews (focused on mid-continent mallards), and one Pacific Flyway crew (focused on western mallards). 

The lone Pacific Flyway crew would consist of Joseph Sands, Christopher Cain, and myself (as crew leader).  Once a location in south-central Oregon was set, I started ordering gear.  Lots of gear (!); we needed to recreate a banding camp from scratch.  Next was intel and recon, vital for a 3-man crew venturing into the arid Oregon hinterlands to trap waterfowl.  Brandon Reishus (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife – Migratory Game Bird Coordinator) and other state personnel were instrumental in getting us settled into our banding location.  Although it’d been years since he last bait-trapped mallards in this area, his knowledge of the roads and typical duck-usage areas proved extremely helpful as our baseline! 

Our goal was to capture 2,000 mallards (500 of which adult males).  We came close! We caught and banded 1,818 total ducks, of which 1,798 mallards (of which 1,032 were adult males).  We also assisted in Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife ’s night-lighting duck banding operations and trumpeter swan collaring operations.  One very unique recapture was a male mallard banded as a hatch-year in Nevada in August 2010.  The funny thing about that is I was assisting Nevada Department Of Wildlife and Chris Nicolai in trapping and banding mallards at the Nevada banding site in August 2010.  So there exists the possibility that I handled that same mallard twice, a decade apart!  I’d like to think he remembered my mug, but probably not.  Either way, neat connection.

Our time in this unique arid wetland setting has us pondering the future of someone continuing operations.  It not only offered us the opportunity to trap A LOT of mallards before hunting season, but also offered cooperative Federal-State-Flyway priority assistance with summer night-lighting operations (increasing one of the most rich and complete gadwall banding datasets in the world), trumpeter swan banding, and possibly future tule white-fronted goose marking and tracking operations.

The Oregon banding crew holding Mallards. (left to right) Chris Cain, Steve Olson, and Joe Sands. Photo By: Steve Olson The Oregon banding crew holding Mallards. (left to right) Chris Cain, Steve Olson, and Joe Sands. Photo By: Steve Olson, USFWS

A Beautiful morning made even better with a trap full of Mallards.  Photo By: Steve Olson a trap full of Mallards.  Photo By: Steve Olson, USFWS

Overview of the banding area from a lookout point on the west rim.  Photo By: Steve Olson a lookout point on the west rim.  Photo By: Steve Olson, USFWS

Setting up the band carousel and organizing a new banding box.  Photo By: Steve Olson Banding tools on a table Steve Olson, USFWS

Hatch-year Gadwall in crate after being netted at about 3:30AM by the banding crew and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife during their night-lighting banding operation. Photo By: Steve Olson Gadwall in a crate Steve Olson, USFWS


The Little Banding Crew on the Prairie

Written by Tyler Porter

Southeastern South Dakota Area

As banding efforts begin to wind down on the prairie, our crew is reminiscing of the unique experience that we’ve been granted over the past four weeks. A far cry from the remote “bush” banding of northern Saskatchewan that is typically “the norm” for the month of August, the prairie has been a gratifying change of pace that has made the whole experience that much more rewarding.

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Members of the crew have been fortunate enough to band ten species of waterfowl, including several species that we aren’t privy to capturing at the a bush banding station, including redheads, wood ducks, canvasbacks, and ruddy ducks. We’ve also had a few other species of waterbirds in our traps, such as American coots and pied-billed grebes. These birds may not have been target species, but they brought smiles to the crew, nonetheless..

Despite the long days, punishing winds, searing temperatures, and heat indices exceeding 100 degrees, our crew has meshed quite well and made the best of the situation that 2020 has dealt us. Whether scooping ducks from our swim-in traps with the sun beating down on us or sweating-it-out in a blind for hours on end waiting for the perfect rocket net shot on a group of dabbling ducks, the crew has kept a positive, upbeat attitude. As usual for a group of biologists, every day in the field has brought us the chance to say, “I can’t believe we get paid to do this.”

In addition to an outstanding catch of ducks, we have been fortunate enough to have exceptional interest from the Service’s constituency in the southeastern South Dakota area, which has been a great reminder of why we do what we do. Whether it be from a curious driver in a passing truck, ATV, or UTV or a neighboring land owner, we have had great interest in our banding efforts that have been met with positive questions and comments from the public that we serve. We depart southeastern South Dakota with fond memories of new friendships made, good food, friendly folks, and nearly 2,900 more ducks on the landscape with aluminum bands on their legs (~2,500 of them being blue-winged teal). No doubt, our crew will be seeing blue-winged teal in their sleep for weeks to come!


waterfowl banding has been quite a bit different

Written by Garrett Wilkerson, Stephanie Catino, Tyler Porter, and Eli Stinson

Southeastern South Dakota Area

Like most of 2020, waterfowl banding has been quite a bit different for our banding crew, which typically bands in Northern Saskatchewan each August. We traded our warm clothes, rain jackets, and wind burns for summer attire and sunburns!

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The logistical challenges associated with pioneering a new banding station were compounded by COVID-19 concerns and developing strategies to keep the community and ourselves safe. However, crews persevered in developing sensible and effective mitigation plans and we identified several banding locations here in the U.S.. After a good bit of brainstorming, we set our sights on preparing for banding in Southeastern South Dakota.

On the day of our arrival and initial scouting we were met with conditions Dakotans have become all too familiar with – 2 inches of rain in just under 12 hours. In fact, Southeastern South Dakota has been quite wet since late winter. The ample amount of water provided quality nesting opportunities for most species of waterfowl, as confirmed by the overwhelming majority of our captures at this point have been juvenile birds. Blue-winged teal, in particular, benefitted from the additional water. We’ve banded over 2,000 of them in just over 2 weeks! There are ample waterfowl of other species in the area, but they are proving a bit more difficult to catch with the warm temperatures and competition from the teal. We have incorporated rocket-netting into our capture efforts, and that is proving to be a bit more successful method for capturing mallards in our crew area.

With another week remaining of trapping and cooler weather on the way, we are hopeful our mallard catch will increase. We look forward to checking back in towards the end of our banding season.

Garrett Wilkerson holding banded mallards and northern pintails Garrett Wilkerson holding banded mallards and northern pintails, USFWS

Stephanie Catino posing with a banded adult male wood duck Stephanie Catino posing with a banded adult male wood duck, USFWS

Tyler Porter with a redhead Tyler Porter with a redhead, USFWS

Eli Stinson poses with a banded mallard Eli Stinson poses with a banded mallard, USFWS


USFWS employee Jessica Bolser with redhead ducklings. USFWS

The Year of the Blue-Winged Teal

Written by Jessica Bolser

North Central North Dakota Area

Like most everyone in 2020, we had to adapt our plans for banding waterfowl this year. Due to travel restrictions in Canada, we are banding at sites in north central North Dakota instead. While this is my second year participating in the waterfowl banding program, North Dakota is a new state to visit for me and I was struck by the big skies, prairie potholes, and the variety of waterbirds! Our 3-person crew this year includes our crew leader, Stephen Chandler, Koven Minor, and myself.

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To get things started, we worked with local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) staff to figure out where the ducks were and then made a plan on how to get to them. We spent several days scouting and baiting sites. It was easy to get distracted by all the birds we spotted while out, including a golden eagle, lots of black terns, swarms of swallows, long-billed dowitchers, willets, glossy ibis, yellow-headed blackbirds and American avocets. We were focused on ducks though, and were encouraged by all the ducks we observed and the variety of species that were present.

Once the ducks started to find the bait sites, we set up wire (clover leaf) traps. Some of the trap sites took a few days to catch any ducks, and we definitely had a muskrat or two that set up camp at a few of the traps! The number of birds captured have continued to increase, and we have had several days now where we have banded over 200 ducks per day.

While we are certainly hoping to catch more mallards, we are having success with blue-winged teal. As of August 25th, we have banded approximately 1,200 blue-winged teal. Under crew leader Stephen Chandler’s guidance, Koven and I have gotten plenty of chances to study the variety of characteristics used to determine the age and sex of this species. At this point, we feel pretty confident that we can quickly assess each bird, and then carefully place an aluminum band around the leg before releasing the bird unharmed. Other species banded have included mallards, a northern pintail and a northern shoveler. One interesting bird that we captured was an immature male that had already been banded this summer in Manitoba! It is always interesting to recapture birds that were banded previously! That recapture data can really start to tell the story of that bird and provide valuable information about that species.

This year has been a very different experience from my banding adventures last year, and we have minimized all of our interactions with businesses and the public while we are here in North Dakota for everyone’s safety. We’re hopeful that, as we approach September, the excessive heat of the past weeks will abate and our mallard catch will increase. Time will tell. Overall, I feel fortunate to be able to get out and band birds as a part of my job, and it has been another great learning experience.

Ducks on a pothole wetland. Ducks on a pothole wetland. USFWS


Sunflower Mallards

Written by Walt Rhodes

The Dakotas and Montana Area

Heading west out of Valentine, Nebraska, the three-truck convoy begins chasing its shadows cast by the daybreak sun.  I’m sandwiched between my colleagues, Terry Liddick in the lead and John Rayfield in my rearview mirror.  I load a podcast, sip some coffee, and settle in for our 75-mile commute.

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Nebraska State Highway 20 stretches in rollercoaster-undulating fashion across the northern edge of the Nebraska Sandhills, which are the largest sand dune formation in the Western Hemisphere and one of the largest grass-stabilized dune systems in the world. As the caravan turns north, the asphalt gives way to gravel and we crest the last northern dune ridge, coffee and podcast episode finished.

The vista spread out before us is why we are here. It’s green, and that color in an arid landscape means water.

The Sandhills are perched above the massive Ogallala aquifer. This underground reservoir is tapped for agriculture, and this region is no exception, but wetlands are also formed where the groundwater makes it to surface in the form of springs and pools, and breeding waterfowl take advantage of the habitat.

Terry and I are normally in Canada this time of year each leading a banding crew but due to COVID-19 travel restrictions we had to regroup and band waterfowl south of the border.  With John, we are one of four crews spread out over the Dakotas and Montana banding ducks to inform the statistical models that help manage the continent’s waterfowl populations. Our area of operation is in south central South Dakota.

Refuge staff have located several potential trapping sites in the region since this is new country to us. During the day we drive through a patchwork of hay, corn, and sunflower fields and grasslands dotted with cattle, stopping at wetlands that pock the landscape. Our techniques are the same as up north, oval traps baited with corn.

Rain has been minimal and the temperatures have hit the triple digits but the ducks have been, remarkably, cooperative. Mallards have been the most numerous ducks banded, followed by a surprising number of wood ducks given the lack of trees, and a smattering of Northern pintails, blue-winged teal, gadwalls, and redheads. The wood ducks are nearly all adult males, and it’s believed that they may be southern birds that flew north during the summer to molt.

The withering heat has caused the sunflowers to begin to hang their heads, transforming the fields from yellow earlier in the month to a waning green. Dust over a mile away indicates an oncoming truck as we head home to the evening self-quarantine in our motel rooms, cold water and satellite radio countering the day’s fatigue for the drive.

Mallards and wood ducks fill traps at the aptly named Lone Tree trap site near Martin, SD. (photo courtesy of Walt Rhodes, USFWS) Mallards and wood ducks fill traps at the aptly named Lone Tree trap site near Martin, SD. (photo courtesy of Walt Rhodes, USFWS)

Wing plumage of an adult male wood duck. (photo courtesy of Walt Rhodes, USFWS) Wing plumage of an adult male wood duck. (photo courtesy of Walt Rhodes, USFWS)


From the Northwest Territories, Canada to the Lower 48 Prairies

Written by Dave Fronczak

Northeast Montana Area

Due to the unprecedented impacts of Covid-19, we were unable to band waterfowl in our usual places in Canada (for me 15 years in the Northwest Territories), but instead are pivoting our efforts within the lower 48.  This year, I was asked to head up a crew of veteran waterfowl banders (Kammie Kruse [FWS, NM] and Phil Thorpe [FWS, CO]) in Northeast Montana.

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I especially welcomed these two, not only from knowing them since the start of my career and enjoying their company; but also, mostly because of their invaluable experience and numerous years banding waterfowl in the prairies.  There are many things to consider when banding in the prairies compared to up North, in particular, long drives, little cell coverage, and unwanted critters getting into your traps to run a muck! Despite the logistical differences among banding areas, I am really enjoying the wide open landscape, seas of native prairie, waving to folks on the road as you pass by, and seeing ample wildlife, both birds and mammals.

The local National Wildlife Refuge staff could not have been more welcoming and helpful to us.  Speaking with Sean Lofgren,  a local Refuge Manager, he said that we can expect lower than normal water levels within the wetland and lake basins due to the lack of precipitation from the previous month.  In addition, because it is so dry, we would have to use extra precaution when driving the two-track trails to get to our sights. This information is priceless, when you are not from the area and do not know exactly what to expect. Sean mentioned that in previous years, their regular waterfowl banding crew would band mallards, northern pintails, blue-winged teal, and redheads.  Again, we are filling in the gap because the refuge was not able to host a regular banding crew this year due to the virus.  With that, we too are taking special precautions by not staying at the refuge bunkhouse and limiting our contact with the staff.  Among each other, we are driving individual vehicles and using the proper PPE to minimize any exposure.

As we start our efforts here in Montana, I am looking am enjoying roaming and banding waterfowl in this part of the country.  Sometimes, limited water means large concentrations of waterfowl.  My next blog will be the results of our banding operation here at the Medicine Lake NWR.

Round swim-in traps used to catch and band waterfowl, Medicine Lake NWR. Photo By: Dave Fronczak, USFWS.
Round swim-in traps used to catch and band waterfowl, Medicine Lake NWR. Picture taken by Dave Fronczak, USFWS.

Native short grass prairie near northeast Montana banding area. Photo By: Dave Fronczak, USFWS.
Native short grass prairie near northeast Montana banding area. Photo By: Dave Fronczak, USFWS.


Holding the first American black duck I have ever banded! Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS)

Aroostook County, Maine

Written by Sarah Yates and Anthony Roberts

Maine and Atlantic Area

Tony and I normally spend the month of August in Canada banding up to thousands of ducks and specifically targeting mallards. Tony has operated in the Northwest Territories in recent years and I am normally in southeastern Alberta where short-grass prairie dominates. It is very different from Maine!

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However, this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting mitigations the branch had to quickly re-organize and plan for domestic banding operations. I am from Maine and Tony is currently located in Vermont, so we looked to do something useful for the Atlantic Flyway that was not too far from home and allowed us to follow all Covid-19 regulations and protocols while safely banding waterfowl.  We worked with biologists from multiple states (NH, VT, and ME), to seek out possible options, and discussions quickly turned to ring-necked ducks. Ring-necked ducks are a priority species as they are currently one of the four species used to determine duck hunting regulations in the Atlantic Flyway. The other species include wood ducks, American green-winged teal, and common goldeneye. All together, these four species comprise about 60% of the ducks harvested annually in the Atlantic Flyway.

After several discussions with state biologists, Tony and I were able to help in a couple of different ways. First, we were able to organize a couple of aerial reconnaissance flights targeting areas recommended by state biologists in the hopes we could locate some new locations where ring-necked ducks may congregate to molt.  If found, these areas could be useful for future banding efforts. Secondly, after talking with Kelsey Sullivan, Wildlife Biologist, with the Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, we learned of a ring-necked duck molting site in northern Maine where the ducks congregate every year with counts ranging from 300-3000 individuals depending on the year and conditions. For the first time last year, Kelsey and other state biologists were up in the county drive-trapping and banding hundreds of ring-necks as part of a new effort to provide data for the multi-stock adaptive harvest model. This is an extensive operation that requires numerous people and boats operating in close quarters, so we could not execute it this year due to Covid-19.  Instead, we decided that this very same area would be our best bet to band as many target species as possible. A two- person operation could be safely implemented after undertaking several mitigations and following all Covid-19 protocols.

Banding ducks in my home state has been a special treat. What have we learned so far? Well, ring-necked ducks are very skittish, they do not leave the middle of the lake very often, and the molting birds seem to have no interest in our deep water baited swim-in traps! It seems drive trapping is most likely the best option for this species, this time of year. Unfortunately, it was not feasible with our limited crew this year. However, we are catching other target species like wood ducks, as well as another high priority species, the American black duck. To date, we have banded a variety of species including mallards, American black ducks, wood ducks, gadwall, and blue-winged teal.

The sun rise over one of our banding locations. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS) The sun rise over one of our banding locations. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS)

One of our trapping locations. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS) One of our trapping locations. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS)

Success! This trap had both mallards and American black ducks. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS) Success! This trap had both mallards and American black ducks. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS)

Collecting data! Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS) A bucket and tools Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS)

A colorful male wood duck. Photo Credit: Anthony Roberts (USFWS). A colorful male wood duck. Photo Credit: Anthony Roberts (USFWS).

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Last Updated: October 1, 2020