Colorado State University graduate student Casey Setash transports cinnamon teal ducks on Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado. Photo by USFWS
Steve Segin, in External Affairs in our Mountain-Prairie Region, talks to Colorado State University graduate student Casey Setash about the cinnamon teal.
The cinnamon teal does what many Americans do when the temperature drops: It heads to Mexico and Central America for some sun and fun. Since the bird spends half of the year south of the border; management of this enigmatic species requires international collaboration.
“I think it’s always important to remember that cinnamon teal and other waterfowl are not just our birds here in the U.S.,” says Setash. “They don’t know international boundaries and require high quality habitat across those boundaries at each step of their lifecycle in order to survive.”
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Setash has been conducting research into the breeding ecology of cinnamon teal. Her work compliments a nationwide banding program led by the Service to get a better understanding of the duck’s biology.
“The cinnamon teal is a priority species in the West and has traditionally been understudied,” says Dave Olson, a Service waterfowl biologist. “We have teams out working across the western United States, but having a graduate student dedicated to studying this duck will really help us make better conservation management decisions.”
Setash says she has always had an interest in waterfowl, and it’s hard to say no to a duck as beautiful as the cinnamon teal. “What’s great about cinnamon teal is so little is known about them and the field is wide open to ask some really interesting question,” she says.
Partnerships play an invaluable role in the research, with field support from several National Wildlife Refuges in Colorado, California, Oregon, Utah and Idaho, and state Wildlife Management Areas throughout the Intermountain West. Crews have banded more than 6,500 cinnamon teal since 2012.
Setash has been conducting her research on Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. Her goal is to gather vital life history information on hen cinnamon teal nesting in the area. Once specific life history information is collected and analyzed, land managers can use informed information to take action that improve breeding habitat.
Cinnamon teal hen being fitted with a nasal disc on Monte Vista Refuge. This individual also has a band and a webtag on her right foot, indicating that she was marked as a duckling as part of an effort studying duckling survival. Photo by Casey Setash
As part of her research, Setash has placed more than 100 nasal discs on immature hens in hopes of determining their breeding site fidelity and wintering ground preferences.
“If we know when the birds arrive and depart nesting and wintering areas, we can begin to form partnerships with the management agencies in those areas, as well as get a better understanding of what kind of habitat they’re cueing in on to potentially provide or preserve more of that habitat into the future,” says Setash “Placing the nasal discs on juvenile hens also allows us to see whether they are returning to the breeding grounds where they were born year after year to breed themselves.”
The nasal discs, small plastic pieces of various colors and shapes, fit snugly on a wire going through the bird’s nostrils so individual ducks can be identified from relatively long distances.
Setash ensures that the nasal discs do not interfere with breathing, mobility or ability to forage.
“Each disk takes about three or four minutes to put on, and we make sure they’re snugly in place before releasing the hen,” she says. “Other than that, it’s simply a matter of getting people to report them to the correct agencies.”
The cinnamon teal hen sporting a nasal disc spotted by David Molina in Nayarit, Mexico. Photo by David Molina
Recently, a biologist in Nayarit, Mexico, was able to do just that. David Molina, an independent biologist conducting water bird surveys, spotted something out of the ordinary: a female cinnamon teal marked with nasal discs. “It was a surprising observation,” he says. Molina was able to reach out to biologists working for the Service’s Sonoran Joint Venture, who passed on word of his finding. It was determined that this bird was banded at Monte Vista on August 24, 2016.
“What’s great about this sighting is that this juvenile successfully completed her first fall migration to Nayarit – nearly 1,400 miles from Colorado,” says Setash.
Partnerships with people like Molina not only provide insight into migration ecology and wintering habitat use, but also strengthen international ties pivotal for the conservation of migratory birds.
Setash has a final plea: “I’m sure birders in Mexico and Central America have seen some of these birds and had no idea why they were marked with small plastic discs, but didn’t know who to tell or that it might be important. That’s why it’s so essential that we get the word out about this and recover any and all information about these birds that we can,”