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.
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:
- 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.
- Determine changes that may occur in harvests of various populations. This information is obtained by studying band recovery and/or harvest rates.
- 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.
- 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
Yorkton, SK Banding Station
Written by Jessica Tapp
By far, the best way to learn is by doing. There are just some things that one can fully understand only through experience. For example, the drive up to Yorkton from Missouri was an eye opener. We essentially drove across most of the Prairie Pothole region, a massive expanse of historic shortgrass (and some tallgrass) prairie dotted with wetlands that is currently dominated by agriculture.
One might not realize how much of this region, which we affectionately call the duck factory, has been altered by humans unless they’ve made this trek. And then there’s the skills I attained by practicing the identification, aging, and sexing of around 800 ducks in eclipse plumage. These are valuable skills that I could not have attained through any other opportunity.
We ended up at around 2,500 total birds banded, consisting of about 1k Mallards and a little less than 1,500 Blue-winged teal. There were a few pintails, gadwall, wood ducks and divers in there as well. A far greater total than we had hoped for considering the dry conditions. Without a doubt, the most notable catch was a 13+ year old drake mallard whose band was still readable and had the address to the Bird Banding Lab (back in the day, you sent snail mail to get the details about your banded bird). After discussing with several other biologists, we’re guessing that a large portion of the MS flyway ducks nested and/or went through their flightless molt period in the Dakotas (where there was plenty of water) and then came north to take advantage of the concentrated foods in drying potholes.
Overall, this was an incredible experience and far more physical work than I imagined. Though, the stress and fatigue just fades away when you have birds in hand and start pondering about the journey that each bird has been on and is about to take. The real icing on the cake was the occasional call of sandhill cranes and the daily opportunity to refine my shorebird (and other waterbird) identification skills at our trap sites. To me, migratory birds are one of the most amazing things in the world and I would do this all over again in a heartbeat. I think my peers would probably agree.
13+ yr old mallard and his very old band
A crate full of blue-winged teal
Jessi Tapp, having the best time with a nice northern pintail
Mallard’s the Word
Written by Steve Olson
This was my fifth crew-leading mission, continuing a 22-year duck banding operation at Willow Lake, Northwest Territories, Canada. This station is the furthest north (290 miles south of the Arctic Ocean and 53 miles west of Great Bear Lake) and the most remote of Western Canada Cooperative Banding Program’s duck banding stations. The two closest towns (Norman Wells and Tulita) are not accessible via roads in non-winter months, and Willow Lake is only accessible by jet boat, float plane, or helicopter.
The Willow Lake banding station has traditionally been run by waterfowl biologists (USFWS and NT’s ENR) who hire banding technicians from the local village of Tulita. This cooperation has forged a connection of two very different worlds. This is what makes Willow Lake unique; an opportunity for both entities to live with and learn from each other, all while trapping and banding ducks.
This year, my banding technicians from Tulita were Philip Clement and Francis Ayah. Philip had banded with me three other Augusts and this was Francis’s first time. Both had also grown up spending a lot of time on the land in the Willow Lake and Tulita area. Willow Lake, residing along the Loche River in the Mackenzie River Valley and Sahtu Settlement area of the Northwest Territories has a long history of hunting, including waterfowl hunting. So much so, that some of the “Willow Lake People” had settled on the north end of Willow Lake hundreds of years ago because of the area’s abundance of game and fish. The navigable waters enabled them to reach other settlements such as Tulita and beyond. Currently, there are no year-round residents at Willow Lake, but many make trips from Tulita in the spring for waterfowl hunting and fish-netting, and in the fall and early winter for trapping, fish-netting, and moose hunting.
As with any year, there are many factors that affect species composition and totals. We experienced the lowest water levels and coldest and wettest month at Willow Lake. Low water levels did afford us the opportunity to trap a greater distance from the treeline and this made it harder for predators to find the traps, which was a positive factor. Also, colder weather and strong NW winds generally mean more ducks in traps because they are moving south and need to feed more often.
- We caught, banded, and released 1,156 total ducks this August. Of which, 1,017 were Mallards. This was the 6th most (most = 1,503) Mallards banded at this station and eclipsed 1,000 Mallards banded for the second year in a row.
- The Willow Lake Banding Station eclipsed 32,000 ducks banded in total since 1995. This is a testament to all the cooperation, assistance, hard work, and effort applied the last 23 years (banding was not accomplished in two years because of extremely low water, or no water at Willow Lake).
- We caught the first Ring-necked Duck and Common Goldeneye, and also the second Mallard X American Black Duck Hybrid (one also caught in 2000).
Our time banding in the bush is now over, but our experiences constantly fill my head and have me day-dreaming. Besides catching ducks, the fishing wasn’t as great as other years (turbid water), but we caught enough pickerel (walleye) for a few night’s dinner. Unlike last year, we did not encounter the wolf pack in the area and our anecdotal lack of encountering them was furthered by seeing the first caribou and moose I’ve seen at Willow Lake over the last 5 Augusts. I continued to learn a new culture, made friends for life, and have enough stories to fill the imagination of anyone who lends an ear. Further, I was able continue my experiences by living in the bush and learning local survival techniques.
Willow Lake Banding Camp and low water conditions. Five years ago, we were able to tie up the boats almost directly to the birch stump. Photo Credit: Steve Olson
Typical large trap design and location, far from the shoreline, with typical number of Mallards. Photo Credit: Steve Olson
Francis Ayah, Philip Clement, and Steve Olson showing off the 1,000th Mallard banded at Willow Lake in August 2019. Photo Credit: Steve Olson
A small muskox herd along the Loche River north of Willow Lake. Photo Credit: Steve Olson
Steve Olson with the second Mallard X American Black Duck Hybrid caught and banded at Willow Lake banding station. Photo Credit: Philip Clement
A Horn River Narrative
Written by Joe Sands
The Deh Cho Bridge spans the Mackenzie River as it flows out of Great Slave Lake and connects the north and south banks of the river on Northwest Territories Highway 3 just above the ice road (winter) and old ferry crossing (summer). Deh Cho means “Big River” in Dene, the primary language of the First Nation people from this area, and the Mackenzie is just that: gigantic.
The longest river in Canada, the Mackenzie drains an area over 1.8 million square kilometers. Below the bridge, the Mackenzie’s gray water flows northwest, towards the Arctic Ocean, carrying the water, silt, and rocks from nearly half of western Canada. It’s early August when we cross the bridge (Chris, Dave and I) and turn left off Highway 3 and drive a couple of miles to Fort Providence. After inventorying gear, loading supplies, and launching an outboard Lund and an airboat, we head downstream to a cabin on small Mackenzie tributary, the Horn River.
Traveling down the Mackenzie we glide under omnipresent symmetry between river and sky. On each bank is the boreal forest, far enough away to seem two dimensional though in reality it is a vast land of spruce, aspen, poplars, and willow. The river and sky mirror each other for 19 nautical miles until we reach the mouth of the Horn River. Turning in to the Horn, the color of the water changes to coffee and the smell of the air becomes an earthy smell of boreal forest. Our cabin is about a mile upriver. The cabin is about 15x20 feet with four bunks; propane stove top, propane refrigerator and a sink. There is no running water. It’s not fancy, but it is clean, everything has its place, and it is home for the next three weeks
But this is more than a camping trip. Our objective is to catch and band as many ducks as possible in a three week period. Mallards are our primary target, but we will also catch northern pintails, green-winged teal, and likely a handful of blue-winged teal along with some odd catches of other species. Our banding site is Mills Lake. Mills lake is an overflow of the Mackenzie river as it makes a southwest bend. The result of this meander is a large expanse of marsh that holds thousands of ducks during the summer months. Northern shoveler, American wigeon, and mallards all breed in the marsh, and it serves as a large molting and staging area for thousands of mallards and northern pintail. In addition to waterfowl is a menagerie of other birds: thousands of shorebirds and waterbirds- greater and lesser yellowlegs, dowitchers, semipalmated sandpipers, least sandpipers, and American bitterns.
Trapping starts slowly. It takes a few days for the birds to find bait and it takes a few more days for them to get accustomed to wire traps at bait sites. Once the birds figure it out, our catches start to increase and we put out many new bands until we have banded the majority of the birds hanging around a trap site. At this point, we move the trap to another area and hope for a change in the weather to blow more birds in. In a normal year we catch around 1,500-2,000 birds in 21 days or so. Mallards make up the largest proportion of the catch, and northern pintails are second.
This year was not a normal year (see Dave Fronczak’s blog about the 2019 Mills Lake banding effort). Like all marsh environments, Mills Lake is dynamic. The vegetative composition of the marsh varies annually based on water level. In very dry years, Mills Lake shrinks to a giant mudflat. In wet years, the water invades the upland grasses. All of this is a fluctuation of about 1 to 2 feet of water, which makes a huge difference in the biology of the lake. Some years there are more birds available to capture and band than others.
After a couple of days, the routine becomes apparent again: Breakfast and coffee. Out to the marsh. Catch ducks. Bait traps. Move traps. In to town once a week or as needed assuming the weather permits. Late lunch. Data entry. A game of cribbage. Read. Sleep.
By the end of the trip, a look across the Horn reveals cottonwood and aspen leaves changing to yellow. Sandhill cranes gather on the marsh larger numbers. In the afternoons they climb high into the sky on thermals and head south. The short summer is ending. We pack up camp and leave near the end of the month. Heading out of the bush comes with mixed feelings. You are ready to get home, but there is the allure of things up here in the north that keep hold of you: afternoon winds through the cottonwoods, ducks on the marsh, a fire in the cabin stove, Aurora borealis, and the water of the Horn passing slowly until it reaches the Mackenzie, bound for the Arctic.
Smoked Mackenzie Walleye
- 2-3 Walleye at 2-3 lbs a piece.
- Dry willow
- Dry alder
Clean walleye, rinse and freeze for 48 hours. After 48 hours, defrost and run filet knife along inside of ribs at backbone so fish will lay flat on grill. Season with salt and pepper, or seasoning blend of your choice (Cajun/Creole style seasonings recommended). Soak alder chips in water and burn dry willow down to coals. Add alder chips and place fish on grill. You are looking for a thin blue smoke and a temperature of about 100 degrees. Smoke fish for 4-6 hours or until done. Enjoy on crackers with a bit of Siracha.
Every once in a while...
Written by Dave Froncza
As stated in one of my favorite movies, “Sometimes you eat the bar, sometimes the bar eats you”, or in our case you get skunked, it happens. Well that was the case for the 2019 Mills Lake crew. No matter what you do sometimes, it just wasn’t in the cards. The season began when I received a call, in July, from a friend in Fort Providence, saying, “Hey Dave, that Big Rock in the Mackenzie just adjacent to town is showing”.
This was significant information because the rock is an indicator of water level for the Mackenzie and ultimately the tell for the conditions of Mills Lake. In most years, the Big Rock doesn’t show its’ ugly head until the end of the banding season.
The Mills Lake crew arrived in Fort Providence on the third of August, got our gear together, and then headed down to the Horn River cabin, which we would call come for the next 3 weeks. Upon arriving, we noticed that the water level in the Horn River was well below normal. In particular, partially exposed rocks are not friends to the outboard’s skiff. This was strike one…
The next day we received our grain, filled the airboat with gas, and took a ride along the McKenzie to Mills Lake. When we arrived, the scene was analogous to a coastal plain. In all, the water depth was about 3 – 6 inches, silty substrate, mud flats were starting to become exposed, and submerged vegetation dominated the food source. The dry conditions didn’t make us nervous because we have experienced these types of conditions in previous years. However, as we moved to potential banding spots, we noticed something peculiar about Mills this year. Where were the mallards that normally dominate the landscape? Did they over fly this area because of the dry conditions this year? As we continued, we noticed that the waterfowl species composition was primarily northern shoveler and American wigeon, along with a small portion of northern pintails. We also noticed that these ducks were using an area of about a square mile of what was the remnants of Mills Lake. Dry conditions we can be dealt with. However, having an area dominated by duck species that do not respond to bait can be a major barrier to success. Especially, with all the preferred submerged vegetation that was available. Arrggg…strike two.
The next few days became routine, cut banding sites, bait, and wait for a response. We noticed with each passing day, there were more pintails among the large groups of American wigeon and northern shoveler. But, still no flocks of mallards. A few more days passed, we saw that the ducks were responding to our bait sites with the much anticipated explosion of ducks flying out as we arrived and zero bait left within the site. Traps were placed at several sites and expectations were high among the crew. “Tomorrow, we’re going to catch’em.” However, the next day, not a single duck was in any of the traps that we placed. Okay, give them a day. Spread a little more bait and the next day will be the big day. Nothing. Ducks were everywhere around the traps, but the closer you got to the trap more bait was left waiting. Strike three, you’re out…
“Okay, what are we doing wrong”, said the members who have been doing this successfully for many years. We were doing nothing wrong. We basically came to the conclusion that we were in an area that had low water conditions, an over abundant of natural resources that we were competing with, and dominated by non-target species. Well, this was the only explanation that kept us sane. In the middle of the month, we basically started over. More sites, bait, and the anticipated response from ducks to the bait. Moved traps and nothing. But the questions still remained, why weren’t we at least catching pintails? Well, the only thing that we can think of was that these ducks weren’t hungry enough to want to go for bait in a trap. Sadly, I admitted defeat and as a Chicago Cubs fan, all I can think of was the infamous phrase, “well wait till next year”.
Pinehouse Banding Crew Blog
Written by Garrett Wilkerson
The fifth year of waterfowl banding efforts at the Pinehouse banding station began with good trapping conditions and very few logistical issues. We arrived at the station with no equipment issues, a welcome relief after traversing many miles of gravel road through the boreal forest.
We were greeted with cool weather, lower water levels than the previous 2 years, and many broods of waterfowl present in the marsh. However, Mother Nature seems to always offer up curveballs to the Pinehouse banding crew, and this season has been no exception. Strong winds and heavy rains have persisted since day 3, leading to feverish attempts to dry clothing and gear before the next day’s trap run. Also, the Churchill River has risen about 1.5 feet since our arrival, rendering many of our initial trapping locations unsuitable. Despite the less than ideal trapping conditions, we have banded nearly 1,100 ducks total, with mallards, green-winged teal, blue-winged teal, American wigeon, northern pintails, and ring-necked ducks composing the majority of our catch. Our most successful days came earlier in the month when water levels were lower and temperatures were cooler. With just a few days of trapping left for this season, we are catching fewer birds as the water levels rise, but we are hopeful that an approaching cold front helps fill our traps for a strong finish.
It is always a joy to return to the “bush” and band ducks, and we have thoroughly enjoyed the season catching ducks, watching bears and moose, and seeing the Northern Lights on a few clear nights. We’ve met many new friends while at camp and on the river, and we look forward to many more years of fellowship. As the season comes to an end, we are thankful for safe operations, abundant wildlife sightings, and the opportunity to contribute to the conservation of waterfowl.
Big Grass Banding Blog
Written by Rich Cain
For the last 20 days I have had the opportunity to work with and learn from wildlife biologists from all over the country. Whether we are banding ducks or eating a meal there is always something new to learn, and a memory to be made.
Since I have arrived in Plumas, Manitoba, I have learned how to set up and use benning and clover leaf traps, differentiate between immature and mature ducks by looking at primary, tertial, and tail feathers. I have also developed a passion for North American bird identification.
Our banding crew is seeing lower water levels than previous years, however there are still plenty of ducks in the area to be banded. We are slightly ahead of last years numbers and seeing mostly mallards in our traps. At the end of Monday August 19th, we had banded around 1565 Mallards and 1600 ducks total. As the days go by, the excitement grows as we hope to see even larger bird numbers than the day before.
Crew leader Stephen Chandler explaining the difference between immature and mature Redhead flight feathers.
Yorkton, SK Banding Station
Written by Jessica Tapp
The 2019 Mississippi Flyway banding crew hails from Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri. Each of us have gone from enduring historic flooding all spring to the exact opposite end of the spectrum. Locals tell us that the Yorkton, Saskatchewan area had almost no snow this past winter, which usually melts and fills up the pothole wetlands each year.
On top of that, significant rainfall events have been spotty or non-existent. Seasonal wetlands are bone dry and the larger potholes are showing some decent mudflats (cue some happy dancing shorebirds). This was not what I had hoped to see on my first visit to the heart of the duck factory. Crew leader, Shannon Hansel, from Iowa Dept of Natural Resources, expressed his concerns about the lack of habitat but also mused that it would concentrate ducks and possibly make it easier to attract them to our trap sites.
We are having to hike through the mud much further than anticipated to set bait and traps. We’ve also had to move traps several times, which set us back about a week. A few sites that have been used in in the past don’t have enough water or ducks to justify the effort. However, if you know anything about wetlands, dry cycles are necessary and we’re seeing emergent vegetation sprouting in the cracks of the dried mud. This will help rebuild the hemi-marsh conditions necessary for maintaining the duck populations well into the future.
It was a slow and rough start, but it proved to be just a matter of time and patience. Hens are still raising their young, so we’re catching mostly adult males, hatch year birds, and hens with their broods. We’ve caught one brood of mallard ducklings no less than 5 times in the same trap. Surprisingly, no one has given them names… yet. Cooler weather during this second week seems to have stirred up the mallards and blue-winged teal, and numbers in our traps are picking up. We went from 45 birds a day during the first week to around 150-200 a day. As of August 16th, our total number of birds caught is 1100. Getting some adult mallards in hand has definitely boosted morale. We’re looking forward to finishing out these last two weeks on a high note, assuming nature decides to work with us.
We caught a Wilson’s Phalarope. It’ll think twice about hanging with the BWTE again.
A view of one of our trap sites from solid ground, showing the distance we had to carry them to set up.
Jessi Tapp hugging the baby ducks. Because, why wouldn’t anyone hug the baby ducks?
Severe drought in Brooks, Alberta
Written by Sarah Yates
The Brooks crew area in southeastern Alberta is currently experiencing a severe drought. Locals say they only received two inches of rain this past year and the landscape is looking brown and parched. The dry conditions limit the areas we can trap and band waterfowl. Many of the smaller wetlands are completely dried up and those semi-permanent wetlands that remain are too shallow to trap ducks in.
There is an obvious lack of blue-winged teal in the area, something we also observed during our annual Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Surveys in May. Numbers are down in general this year and it’s most likely due to the drought and habitat availability. Luckily we do have some reliable permanent waterbodies which become even more important during these drought years. Mallards are concentrated on the larger lakes for molting and the majority of birds we are currently banding are in fact molting adults. Phenology is slightly ahead of last year and I’m happy to report we are also catching juvenile (hatch year) mallards that are large and feathered enough to band…adding a little cohort diversity to our banding tally.
I’m also happy to report I have a wonderful crew this year. I was so excited to welcome back Roberta Swift, USFWS-Wildlife Biologist, Division of Migratory Birds, Portland, OR for her second year of waterfowl banding in Brooks. We are joined by Jessica Bolser, USFWS-Wildlife Biologist, Port Louisa NWR, Wapella, IA and Savannah Angwin, Student Volunteer, Montana State University, Bozeman, MT.
Herding birds into the catch-box.
One the first birds of the season was an adult female cinnamon teal and her young brood.
Adult male redhead.
Savannah and an American green-winged teal.
Dry on the Canadian Prairies as the 2019 Waterfowl Banding Season Commences
Written by Mark Koneff
Our U.S Fish and Wildlife Service banding crews, as well as a cooperating crew from the Mississippi Flyway states, arrived in Canada early in August and, after a brief orientation training, dispersed to their stations across the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba as well as the Northwest Territories. Unlike across the border in the U.S., and especially South Dakota, where wet conditions prevail, the Canadian prairies continue to dry.
This can be beneficial to banding operations by concentrating birds on available water, but it can also cause large-scale redistribution of post-breeding birds which make things more challenging for some stations. In general, our prairie crews are all dealing with substantially reduced water levels and availability. Most are now capturing target species such as mallards, and we are hoping for some healthy frontal systems from the north as the season progresses to bring fresh birds to each station. Several of our prairie crews are dealing with water levels that are dropping by 2-3 inches a day on large basins, forcing frequent relocation of traps. In the bush, banding operations have been challenging due to low water levels at a couple of stations. Weather has been a bit uncooperative as well with frequent storms and wind at several bush stations. Every year banding is different, every year presents a new set of challenges and opportunities. As the season progresses, our crew leaders in the field will provide updates so please check back for those.
Drying continues across the Canadian prairies, especially in the grasslands.
In some areas, large basins are losing 2-3 inches of water depth a day, forcing frequent relocation of banding site traps.