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
Mallards on Mallards
Written by Steve Olson
This was my fourth crew-leading mission, continuing a 21-year duck banding operation at Willow Lake, Northwest Territories, Canada. This station is the farthest north (290 miles south of the Arctic Ocean and 53 miles west of Great Bear Lake) and arguably the most remote of Western Canada Cooperative Banding Program’s duck banding stations. The two closest towns (Norman Wells and Tulita) are not accessible from roads in non-winter months, and Willow Lake is only accessible by jet boat or float plane.
The Willow Lake banding station has traditionally been run by waterfowl biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the territorial Department of Energy and Natural Resources, who hire banding technicians from the local village of Tulita. This cooperation has forged a connection between 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 Antoine Horassi and Philip Clement. Both technicians had banded with me two other years. Both had also grown up in the bush on the Great Bear River and Willow Lake. Residing along the Loche River in the Mackenzie River Valley and Sahtu Settlement area of the Northwest Territories, Willow Lake has a long history of hunting, including waterfowl hunting. So much so, that some of the indigenous “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 in the fall and early winter for trapping, fishing, and moose hunting.
This year brought several highlights. After three years ironing out logistics, we were finally able to get new trapping wire to Willow Lake. The station’s previous traps had seen so much wear and deterioration in the last 10-20 years that it rendered them almost useless, and injuries sustained by ducks and banders were increasing annually. Also, the last two years I had been experimenting with a newer, larger trap design and was elated to build new traps with new wire instead of jerry-rigging large traps from pieces of rusty, old small trap wire. We were able to make nine new large traps out of the six rolls of new wire and they worked as expected.
And of course we saw some interesting things during the banding itself. We caught the first ever canvasback, and also the first ever mallard/American wigeon hybrid duck. In total, we caught, banded, and released 1,589 total ducks this August, including 1,367 mallards. This was the 2nd most mallards ever banded at this station--approaching the all-time high of 1,503--and the first time we eclipsed 1,000 mallard bands since year 2000.
The number of ducks caught in 2018 was 13% above the long-term average (1,409) at the Willow Lake Banding Site. 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 of August that I’ve seen 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 generally means more ducks in traps because they need to feed more often or eat more to increase their metabolism.
We also hit a milestone: 30,000 ducks banded in total since 1995. This is a testament to all the cooperation, assistance, hard work, and effort applied the last 24 years (banding was not accomplished in two years because of extremely low water, or no water at Willow Lake).
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 was phenomenal, and we caught as many pickerel (walleye), jack (pike), and coney (inconnu) as we wanted when not working the marsh. We were visited by many wolves this August and heard howling almost every night. 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.
A typical catch in the new, larger traps. Most traps caught Mallards exclusively. Photo Credit: Steve Olson, USFWS
CSteve Olson holding the first Canvasback ever banded at the Willow Lake banding station. Photo Credit: Antoine Horassi, USFWS
Philip Clement with an adult female Green-winged Teal and her duckling caught in the same trap. The duckling could not fly at this moment but probably could within the following 14 days. Photo Credit: Steve Olson, USFWS
Willow Lake crew (Antoine Horassi, Steve Olson, and Philip Clement) releasing the last birds of the banding season. Photo Credit: Steve Olson, USFWS
Steve Olson with the first Mallard X American Wigeon Hybrid caught at Willow Lake banding station. An absolute beauty adult male. Photo Credit: Philip Clement, USFWS
Written by Jaimie Allen
“Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.” – Frank Lloyd Wright
This is my fourth year helping the Migratory Bird Program at a banding station in south-central Saskatchewan. We are a team of four crew members this year: crew leader and pilot-biologist Walt Rhodes, North Mississippi Refuge Complex manager Amber Floyd, volunteer and retired Migratory Bird Management division chief Brad Bortner, and me, a wildlife refuge specialist at Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.
I enjoy coming up to area to see what new adventures lay ahead for the month. Every year I am amazed at how the landscape has changed since my last visit. For example, conditions were drier this year, which pushed us to think outside the box for trapping sites. The citizens of the town that we stay in continue to shock me by remembering us and even helping us out by pointing us in the right direction of where to find ducks. It’s fun seeing the comradery of two different countries working on the same project.
This year we managed to catch thirteen different species: mallard, blue- and green-winged teal, gadwall, Northern pintail, Northern shoveler, American black duck, black duck x mallard hybrid, American wigeon, canvasback, redhead, ruddy duck, and lesser scaup. My favorite moment was when we caught a brood of ruddy ducks and an adult male ruddy duck.
The hands-on experience handling and identifying various waterfowl species goes far beyond merely banding the ducks though. To me, helping out the Migratory Bird Program is an added bonus but it’s also about meeting new people and getting new perspectives on things. Coming up here has always been an amazing learning experience as well that I hope I can continue. My crew leader has exceptional leadership skills and patience, which I would like to possess someday and use in the day-to-day operations of my duty station. By the end of this amazing month-long journey I have made long-lasting friendships that can continue to help me grow as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee.
I never know what to expect in Brooks
Written by Sarah Yates
I think I wrote last year that I never know what to expect in Brooks, Alberta, and that saying definitely holds true this year as well! It’s been a banding season of firsts. First of all the area has received no rain since last spring, which has dried up all the smaller pot holes and some of our traditional trapping areas.
The air quality and visibility has been pretty horrible this month on account of all the wildfires in the west, and on top of that it was a late spring. After talking to several local experts we figured phenology is about three weeks behind normal. In some ways, this has played out in our favor. Mallards are plentiful and we’ve been able to take of advantage of the thousands of molting adults that gather on the large and permanent waterbodies in the Brooks area. In fact, while banding usually starts out slow and picks up the middle of the month- this year things got off to a fast start. On day three of trapping we banded over two hundred mallards, numbers of which I’ve never experienced that early on (if ever) in Brooks. The late molt worked in our favor and the birds were hungry!
Many of the larger lakes in the area provide the much needed emergent vegetation, cattails, and bulrush that the flightless mallards need to survive the month long molting process. The vegetation provides cover from aerial predators during their molt. Interestingly, this year, we’ve captured many more males in the early stages of molting into their eclipse plumage than in previous years. We have even caught a few pre-molt male mallards as well, confirming that phenology was drastically delayed in 2018. Males are usually the first to leave their breeding areas to molt, some early in incubation, and are later followed by females with failed nests. The hens that successfully fledged young are usually the last to show up. In a normal year we see a lot of pre-molt females with worn out feathers who are just starting the molt, while the males are usually well ahead and in the later stages of molt if not already flying around. This year however, we had pre-molt male mallards and that is something I hadn’t seen yet in the six years since I started banding waterfowl.
The late molt seems to have led to an increase in the mallard catch here at Brooks. This year the majority of our catch is mallards at 1,555 newly banded birds. Other species included; 218 blue-winged teal, 110 northern pintail, seven redheads, five cinnamon teal, six American green-winged teal, two northern shovelers, two gadwall, and one American wigeon. We banded a grand total of 1,906 this year.
Once again I had a great crew to help me navigate this month long duck banding adventure. The Brooks crew included: Roberta Swift, USFWS, Wildlife Biologist (Seabirds) out of the Migratory Birds and Habitat Program in the Pacific Region; Susan Stanley, USFWS, Wildlife Biologist, Gulf Restoration Program, Houston, Texas; and Dwane Binns, USFWS, Wildlife Biologist with the Inventory and Monitoring Program at Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, Colorado.
Those traps are full of mallards! Photo Credit: Sarah Yates USFWS
Slowly getting the traps cleared out and birds banded. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates USFWS
A nice comparison of cinnamon (front) and blue-winged teal (back). Notice the longer bill, buffy plumage, and lack of an eye ring in the cinnamon teal. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates USFWS
An adult female mallard in full flight feather molt. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates USFWS
A pre-molt adult female northern pintail. Notice the worn out feathers. She can still fly but she’ll begin her molt soon. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates USFWS
Dwane bringing a catch box full of ducks to the shore for banding. This marsh sled was a life saver this year in Brooks! No more lugging around a heavy catch box of ducks through the muck. A boat ride is much better! Photo Credit: Sarah Yates USFWS
Pinehouse Banding Crew
Written by Garrett Wilkerson
The Pinehouse, Saskatchewan banding station is now in its fourth of year operation. The water is slightly higher than normal pool stage again this year, but there appear to be more waterfowl, particularly mallards, present in the marsh than any of the previous years. Trapping locations are a bit different than any other year I’ve banded, with ducks seeming to prefer small openings in the flooded willows.
The bottoms in these areas are a bit tricky for setting traps, but a little patience, some vegetation, and a few support sticks cut from the adjacent willows have done the trick. At the time of this writing, a little more than ¾ through the banding season, we have already surpassed previous years’ banding totals for the station. We have predominantly banded mallards, American black ducks but gadwall, American green-winged teal, blue-winged teal, American wigeon, redheads and northern pintails have also been banded in smaller numbers. Temperatures have been much cooler this season, which seemed to help draw the birds to bait in large numbers from the onset of banding efforts. We have been blessed with fair weather conditions, which make our long hours in the boat each day much more enjoyable.
Back at camp, we have met some interesting critters. A mink has been visiting the boat and spending the night under the subfloor. Quite a few times, we have had to stop the boat so it could safely make its way out from its hiding spot. A black bear has also made some trips into camp, even ripping into some bags of our grain for an easy meal. And each morning, we wake up to the unmistakable vocalizations of common loons. Not a bad way to start the day! We have seen the northern lights a few times, an awe-inspiring spectacle no matter how many times one has spent the night watching the northern sky.
With another banding season almost in the books, my teammates Cody Townsend, from Fergus Falls Wetland Management District in Minnesota; and Gypsy Banks, from North Louisiana National Wildlife Refuges Complex, and I are grateful for our safety, the successes and experiences we’ve had, the friendships we’ve formed and the opportunity we’ve been given to spend another August up north. We look forward to finishing the season strong and returning home to friends and family.
Crewmember Gypsy Hanks poses with an American black duck. Photo: Garrett Wilkerson, USFWS
Crew member Cody Townsend applies a leg band to a blue-winged teal. Photo: Garrett Wilkerson, USFWS
Written by Terry Liddick
This year brought us back to Utikuma Lake in Alberta, Canada for the first time since 2010. We banded here for three years in 2008-10 in an effort to target scaup but had limited success.
While we were here those years though, we were fairly successful trapping mallards. The mallard catch in the more southern prairies have been declining over the past several years where I have been banding, so we decided to come back to Utikuma Lake and give it a try for mallards. Having not been here for the past few years, and banding there being quite a bit different than banding at a prairie station, I began the logistical work back in June. After a fair amount of other coordination and preparation, I finally left home on August 3rd.
Banding always begins with an orientation in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. On August 4th we went through a brief explanation of waterfowl trapping, aging and sexing procedures, trapping techniques, band application procedures, and emergency information. Then I set off with my crew, Miguel Jiminez and Reid Viegut, for Slave Lake, Alberta. Miguel is the Deputy Project Leader at Kern NWR in California and Reid is a student at SF Austin in Texas. This was Miguel’s second year banding with me and he banded with me last in Saskatchewan in 2016.
Once arriving in Slave Lake, the work began. We spent most of the next three days getting our equipment located and organized, getting the boat on the water and traps hauled out on the lake and acquiring our barley that would be used for bait. Mark Koneff, our chief, was able to make it up and give us a reconnaissance flight around the lake to locate ducks. Utikuma Lake is quite large and nearly impossible to efficiently locate ducks by boat only. The lake is seventeen miles long and thirteen miles wide, ringed in many places with cattails that are near impossible to see behind or get through with the boat. Flying around the lake first and then following up in places with the boat where we see good numbers of waterfowl is way more efficient and effective.
Prior to arrival, I coordinated with Kevin Downing and Luke Vander Vennen, both with Alberta Environment and Parks to do some night lighting, which is a way of capturing waterfowl at night using artificial light. They were eager to gain more information about waterfowl use on the lake and offered to provide two airboats and crews to catch ducks at night by netting them as the airboat goes by. This technique is quite effective because many of the waterfowl species using the lake to molt won’t come to baited swim-in traps and are flightless at this time year as they are still molting. So we began night lighting on the night of August 8th and continued for three total nights until August 10th.
The effort was spectacular and resulted in netting thirteen species and 676 total ducks. Luke and Kevin ran the boats and their crews netted the ducks and then brought them to shore for us to band. They would make their first run about 11:30 p.m. and finish at sunrise, which is about 5:00 a.m. here in August. Both boats and crews were able to make three runs each night. I was also able to provide banding opportunities for their crews as most of them knew very little about ducks and have never banded any either. The collaborative effort was effective and enjoyable.
After wrapping up the night lighting, we began setting and baiting our swim in traps at the locations we found mallards during the reconnaissance flight and following up with the boat. We had a minor setback when we encountered a little too much silt and clogged the water pump on the motor that cost us about a mile of rowing and two days to get the motor fixed. Soon we had thirteen traps set. Then the wait began. It usually takes a few days for the ducks to get use to the traps in the area and find the grain. Unfortunately, I believe running the airboat through the area for three nights caused the mallards to move out of the area where we had found them. It took about five days to get the mallards to start showing up again and begin entering the traps.
Once the mallards showed up again, trapping began quite slowly with only two a day for about five days. As usual though, once they began to get comfortable around the traps and got used to the free food, the daily totals began to climb. We are now up over thirty mallards a day and climbing. We are also trapping other species as well, including blue-winged teal, pintails and wigeon.
Some of the surprising things we are finding are the number of juvenile and local mallards we are catching this year as opposed to mostly adult males that we trapped in prior years. A local bird is determined by being flightless, meaning it could not have flown here from another site. That is a good indicator of the production in any given wetland. This lake is known more for molting adults, particularly for wigeon and gadwall, as well as divers, so it is interesting to be catching nearly 50% local and young birds.
Now it is about time to start winding down. We have three days of trapping left. Hopefully we’ll see the mallard catch continue to rise and have a really big day or two. Then it’s time to start taking everything down and heading back to Saskatoon. It’s always a great time banding as well as enjoying the other wildlife we encounter.
Smoke and Heat; but a Fast Start to the 2018 Banding Season
Written by Mark Koneff
Every banding season is different, I guess that’s why it never gets boring. Just when you think you’ve got the birds figured out, they surprise you. This August has had its share of surprises already and we are only a week into the four week banding period.
Over the past decade or so, we’ve struggled with a declining catch of mallards and large increases in our catch and bandings of blue-winged teal and cinnamon teal. Not that I have anything against teal, quite the contrary. These beautiful birds supply wonderful early season action to hunters across North America and fantastic viewing opportunities to the bird-watching community, but when it comes to regulation of harvest in the Pacific, Central, and Mississippi Flyways, mallards rule the roost and data on mallards is critical. Theories about the declining catch of mallards have abounded, but high on my list of plausible explanations has been an overall change in summer weather, with hot conditions prevailing late into August and a general lack of strong cold fronts during the month. These fronts and the cooler temperatures that follow help encourage birds to take interest in the bait grain we use at trap sites as they fuel up for the fall migration.
Certainly the fact that some of our traditional banding honey-holes…large wetlands/lakes important to molting and staging waterfowl, have simply been too wet for too long (leading to a decline in wetland productivity), and an abundance of water on the landscape (which distributes birds widely instead of concentrating them), has contributed to declining catch, but the prolonged summer heat seemed a more likely explanation for the reduced interest of mallards in bait grain at banding sites and the reduction in catch. This year the season began during a period of heat across the Canadian prairies that set some regional daily high temperature records. Yet, despite the heat, many of our stations are reporting a fast start, with large numbers of mallards on bait and in traps almost as soon as trap sites are established.
As far as late-summer habitat conditions go, an overall drying trend is apparent across the southern grasslands. Areas in southern SK that were dry in May during the breeding population survey remain dry and other areas of the grasslands that still held good water in May are showing signs of drawdown in August. Many areas of the parklands, however, continue to hold considerable residual water with many basins still flooded well outside their normal margins.
We’ve had a couple of unwelcome surprises as well. Large forest fires burning in British Columbia and the western U.S. have blanketed the southern prairies in a thick smoke layer, which has affected our ability to fly. A second unwelcome surprise was the theft of a government truck and attached trailer and airboat the evening before we were to send all crews into the field to start the season. That was a first, as far as I’m aware, in the over half century of operation of the banding program in western Canada and very uncharacteristic from the typical warm welcome we receive from our Canadian brethren. Thankfully, we were able to quickly recover the truck, boat, and trailer with only minor damage, and while we did lose some gear, we were able to regroup and get the banding crew and equipment to their station after only a short delay.
Over the coming weeks, our various stations will be submitting reports on conditions and their observations as they are able given the demands of long-days in the field…so check back again.
Dry basins in southern Saskatchewan grasslands, August 2018 (M. Koneff, USFWS)
Basins drawing down south of Saskatoon, SK, August 2018 (M. Koneff, USFWS)
Flooded parkland basin in north-central Alberta, August 2018 (M. Koneff, USFWS)
Reduced visibility from the cockpit due to smoke from forest fires, August 2018 (M. Koneff, USFWS)
A beautiful blue sky above the dense smoke layer blanketing southern Saskatchewan, August 2018 (M. Koneff)
Launching an airboart banding crew at a northern Saskatchewan site after a rocky start, August 2018 (M. Koneff)