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A Talk on the Wild Side.

How to Count, ID Waterfowl When You’re Flying

aerial observer website

Ever try to identify or count ducks when looking down at them while flying in a plane at 100 mph?  If you’re a biologist who’s conducted aerial waterfowl surveys, you know how tough it is.  Although wildlife managers routinely conduct aerial waterbird surveys to measure status, no comprehensive training tools have existed to improve species identification and establish quantifiable standards for aerial observers.  Until now.

Two products are now available to help in training aerial observers – a field guide, using still photos, and a website that employs high-definition video, still photos and interactive testing features. 

The field guide, Aerial Observers Guide to North American Waterfowl, is intended more for in-flight use to help improve skills in waterfowl identification.  It covers all species of North American waterfowl highlighting distinguishing characteristics and flight patterns. 

The website includes online training and testing tools for species identification and counting that simulate the visual experience of aerial surveys.  To obtain the videos for this training, Service biologist Tim Bowman worked with videographers to acquire geographically comprehensive aerial footage of waterfowl species throughout North America.  Video footage was obtained using an ultra-stabilized camera system mounted on the nose of a helicopter (the  same technology used in the Planet Earth series).  

Taken together, these two components represent a user-friendly program to help standardize training for species identification and flock estimation.   It’s a creative solution to a decades-old challenge for aerial observers and is intended to promote more reliable and defensible aerial survey data. 

Fish & Wildlife News   This article is a preview of the fall issue of Fish & Wildlife News, our quarterly magazine. The fall issue is due out in mid-October.

Service Special Agents Work Resembles an Action Movie

  AssetsMillions in gold, jewelry, cash and wildlife products were seized during Operation Crash. Photo by USFWS

 An average looking man walks into a Los Angeles, California, bank safe deposit vault carrying a black backpack. What the bank employees cannot see is that he opens a bank box filled with cash, jewelry, and gold bars. He stuffs several stacks of cash into the backpack, casually walks out from the bank, and gets into a waiting taxi that drives him to the airport. He boards a plane and flies to Kansas City, Missouri. He exits the Kansas City airport, jumps into a waiting car that drives one circle around the airport, and takes him back to the entrance of the airport. The man gets out from the car leaving his backpack filled with cash on the backseat. He reenters the airport and boards a plane for Los Angeles. The cash in the backpack will be used to purchase an illegal rhinoceros horn.

The action above sounds like it was taken from a movie script, but this was an actual case investigated special agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. What that wildlife trafficker did not realize was that he was being watched and followed by undercover special agents working an investigation that was part of Operation Crash.

Operation Crash was created to catch, and send to prosecution, wildlife traffickers who were dealing in illegal rhino horn and elephant ivory products. Thanks to the operation, the Service has made 42 arrests, 30 convictions, and 27 wildlife traffickers have been sentenced in federal court. Those sentenced are serving a cumulative 34 years of prison and almost $7.5 million have been paid in fines and restitution. With support from other federal agencies, Service special agents have also seized more than $75 million in rhino horns and elephant ivory.

Deputy Chief of Law Enforcement, Ed Grace and the Operation Crash team, were nominated in the Homeland Security and Law Enforcement category of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, which highlight the best work of our country’s dedicated public servants. Previous “Sammie” winners include those who created medical advances and drug therapies to help paralyzed veterans; a global vaccination campaign; and the creation of an aerial sensor system to identify and destroy improvised explosive devices.

Everyone with a Facebook account can vote for the People’s Choice honoree … until this Friday, September 9, 2016 at 11:59 pm. You may vote daily, but only one vote per day. Please send this blog to your friends, family, and to those who care about protecting wildlife.

Click here to vote

From a First Hike to Helping First Nations, Darcey Pursues Career in Conservation

  Darcey Evans

Darcey Evans has always been passionate about the environment. Growing up, long weekend hikes with her dog first sparked her interest in conservation. Today, she is working with the North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperative (NPLCC) as a Tribal Climate Change Management Intern for the summer and is looking forward to pursuing a lifelong career in the fields of conservation and climate change.

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Little Things Matter: Tiny Plovers Return to Breed After Being Nursed Back to Health

  plover, then and now

Five tiny orphaned snowy plover chicks from the Oregon Coast were rescued and released back into the wild three years ago.  The next year the plovers were back – older, stronger and ready to breed. At least two of the snowy plovers nested with mates, providing more baby plovers to go forth and multiply. That’s important because snowy plovers are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In the business world it’s called ROI – return on investment. For biologists, it’s called conservation. Either way, we call it making a difference.

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Not Your Average Turkey Hunt

Ashley Danielson, Visitor Services Specialist at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa/Nebraska, shares an awesome hunting story.

  Max Petersen and dad Marty set up for the huntWith the assistance of his father, Max Petersen took part in the Disabled Access Turkey Hunt at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge.

Since DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1958, hunting and other wildlife-dependent recreation has been a major focus for our visitors. People come from across the country to experience a quality hunt, and for more than 10 years, we have been welcoming hunters with mobility issues the same quality hunting opportunities.

During these managed hunts, we work with interested  hunters to provide accessible blinds or other special equipment needs. One individual who has participated in hunts at DeSoto for the past eight years is Max Petersen. Max uses a wheelchair, which makes it tough to find a suitable site for his favorite pastime of hunting.

With the assistance of his father, Marty, Max took part in the Disabled Access Turkey Hunt at the refuge this past spring. Max and his family worked with a company that develops adaptive products for people with disabilities who want to enjoy the outdoors. The company designed a special table and gun mount that attaches to his wheelchair. The gun mount is controlled by a joystick that allows Max to adjust and aim his firearm. When his target is in sight, Marty, acting as Max’s hunting assistant, releases the safety so that Max can pull the trigger and take his shot.

  Max Petersen and turkey
Max with the big tom turkey he harvested.

Using this setup, Max successfully harvested a big tom turkey. Getting the turkey was great, but the experience of hunting on DeSoto and enjoying the sights and sounds of nature together is what Max and Marty enjoy the most.   

“It means a lot to be able to come to the refuge and hunt,” says Marty Petersen. “There is not good habitat around us. Getting Max in somewhere to hunt being in a wheelchair is a chore. At the refuge, everything is accessible and it works great. It is nice to be able to get in and out, and have a safe hunt,” continues Petersen. 

We look forward to continuing the recreational traditions of DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge and of all your National Wildlife Refuges. We are also dedicated to providing more quality hunting opportunities like this one to Max and other hunters with disabilities. 


A HAF intern but learning a whole lot

  HAF intern holding an owl

Interns this summer through Hispanic Access Foundation (HAF) have been instrumental in helping us connect with Latino communities across from Eastern Massachusetts to Baltimore. They’ve been to city parks, neighborhoods, community gardens and meetings, schools and summer camps helping urban residents find, appreciate and care for nature in their cities, neighborhoods and beyond.

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Keeping the Great Lakes Great

The quantity and quality of wetlands have been in a long decline in the coastal areas of the Great Lakes due to a combination of factors, including water level regulation and development. The New York Field Office prioritized several areas within the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Braddock Bay Wildlife Management Area to focus on and developed plans to restore some of the most degraded areas to healthy, diverse wetlands. We recreated a mosaic of edge habitat by excavating over 22 acres of potholes and open water channels in the solid cattail stands, and constructed 16 acres of interspersed habitat mounds, as well as islands that are isolated from the tenacious roots of the adjacent cattails.  These mounds and islands have been treated to remove cattails, then seeded with herbaceous natives and planted with native woody species such as dogwood, buttonbush and maple.  The wetland potholes and habitat mounds are specifically designed to be of varying size and depth/height so as to improve habitat diversity. The channels also allow fish, such as northern pike, the access to spawn in newly created wetland habitat and will improve nesting and foraging habitat for ducks, wading birds, and, hopefully, the New York State-endangered black tern. Learn more: http://bit.ly/2aZgMdc 

Teddy Roosevelt, the Teddy Bear and the Deep South

  2 Tensas River black bear cubsLouisiana black bears, national wildlife refuges, Theodore Roosevelt and teddy bears all are intertwined in the history of Mississippi and Louisiana. Photo by USFWS

It is widely known that President Theodore Roosevelt was a pioneering champion of wildlife conservation in America. He was founder of the National Wildlife Refuge System, after all. What may be less well-known is the extraordinary impact Roosevelt had on conservation locally in west-central Mississippi and northeastern Louisiana, where the events that led to the creation of the teddy bear unfolded more than a century ago.

 TR sits at the sea at Breton NWRPresident Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 at Breton National Wildlife Refuge off the coast of Louisiana. Photo courtesy of Harvard College Library

This week – in honor of National Teddy Bear Day (Friday, September 9) – the Refuge System presents “Teddy Roosevelt, the Teddy Bear and the Deep South.” This online story celebrates the 26th president’s influence on conservation and folklore at and near national wildlife refuges in Mississippi and Louisiana.

  Holt Collier collageHolt Collier (1846-1936) was a hunting guide extraordinaire. Photo by USFWS

The online story also celebrates Holt Collier, a widely admired African American outdoorsman who was born a slave, fought for the South in the Civil War and served as Roosevelt’s hunting guide in 1902 and again in 1907.

  adult Louisiana black bearThe Louisiana black bear is the state mammal of Louisiana. Photo by Pam McIlhenny

And the online story celebrates the animal that inspired the teddy bear, the Louisiana black bear, which in March 2016 was removed from the threatened and endangered species list.

“Teddy Roosevelt, the Teddy Bear and the Deep South” is part of the Refuge System’s new series of weekly online stories that use photos to highlight the conservation work and visitor opportunities at national wildlife refuges, wetland management districts and marine national monuments. A new story is posted on the Refuge System homepage each Wednesday.

Deep Dive: A Closer Look at Bird Banding

Have you seen or heard of birds that wear jewelry? You might wonder why animals who have such beautiful feathers would need any further adornment. These metal objects--bird bands--are not merely decorative, but serve an important scientific purpose that helps us understand birds, as well as their needs and challenges.  

How Bird Banding Works
Biologists and volunteers set up mist nets--nets with very thin webbing that birds usually can’t see--in key locations where birds typically fly, or in the case of waterfowl, traps are set up in water. Once birds are caught in the net, they are removed carefully to minimize harm to birds (and humans--some birds bite!), and weighed with a scale. Birds are examined to determine size, sex, feather condition, breeding status and overall health.

Then they are measured for their band. The bands are provided by the USGS free of charge to licensed banders. There are thirty different size bands, which correspond with different species.

Determining Molt Sequence of Mourning DoveMourning Dove: Tom Koerner/USFWS

Bands are still placed by hand, maybe not too dissimilar to those from decades past.  A caliper helps determine the proper band size, and a good old pair of pliers will help attach it.  It is important to use the right size, or the band can cut off circulation.  Or, if a bird already has a band, it is noted on the data sheet.  

After all that, the birds are released, and the data is recorded in a database, along with the band number. The banding program is one of the largest bird data programs in North America, with an average of 1.2 million banding records and 87,000 encounter records reported to the Bird Banding Lab per year. Bands are recovered by recapture in banding programs, harvested by hunters, or found after death. Banding records help scientists understand bird migration patterns, population status and trends, behavior, and other information. Data is widely used by scientists to make better decisions for management of bird populations, such as setting hunting seasons, or protecting habitat. 

Blue-winged TealDuck banding release. Alisha Hawkins/USFWS

We have learned much about birds through banding over the decades. For example, in 1944, American scientists first learned that chimney swifts wintered in Peru when bird bands were returned to the US embassy there.

More recently, Wisdom, the laysan albatross was recognized to be both the oldest bird in the world and the oldest bird mother, when she hatched chicks earlier this year at Midway Island National Wildlife Refuge through banding data. In fact, the same biologist who originally banded Wisdom in 1956 returned and found his band on her in 2002! 

Wisdom, the world's oldest banded, wild bird. Photo credit: Greg Joder

There is a rich repository of banding information on the flyways.us site. In fact, if you have recovered a band, you can see more information about it, such as where and when it was originally banded.

History of Bird Banding
While there is some evidence of people banding birds for hundreds or even thousands of years--John James Audubon tied string around some birds in the early 1800s--an organized system of bird banding has only been around since the early 1900s. A growing movement of scientists began to study the habits of birds, but there was no good system for understanding one of the most important but mysterious aspects of birds’ lives: their migrations. A steep drop in the price of aluminum--which had been worth more than gold--made it possible to stamp identifying marks and return information on tiny pieces of metal which were light enough not to affect birds movements, but durable enough to last for years. 

In 1902 Paul Bartsch of the Smithsonian used this new advancement to band around one hundred night herons near Washington, D.C., and the modern banding movement was born.  Others were inspired to follow his lead, and by 1909 the growing number of enthusiasts formed the American Bird Banding Association. By 1920, the movement had become an official government program, co-managed by the Canadian Wildlife Service and the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey, which later became the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1935, banding data lead one scientist to develop the concept of migratory flyways. By 1946 the first large-scale waterfowl banding program was under way, leading to the establishment of the four administrative Flyways in 1948.

The program is still going strong today, and is now managed by the U.S Geological Survey’s
Bird Banding Lab.

Early methods of capture. Photo/USGS

Banding Together for Birds

Today, there are many participants in banding program. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists band waterfowl every year as part of the Western Canada Cooperative Waterfowl Banding Program (WCCWBP), 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.  

Service staff also work with local organizations, state agencies and others to band songbirds and others as part of the the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) Program, which provides important data about key species in the United States and Canada. Other organizations and universities also do banding work for their own research, as long as they have a banding permit and research proposal approved by the U.S. Geological Survey and a permit to trap birds from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Master banders usually undergo years of training to ensure that the birds are captured properly to minimize harm.

The North American Banding Council has a list of accredited banding organizations. Often, students and others start out as volunteer assistants, and this can be a great introduction to the study of birds, and possibly even the start of a career as a scientist.  

Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge Volunteer banding a birdHermit Thrush and volunteer at a bird banding session. Lisa Hupp/USFWS

Find a Banded Bird? You Can Help
You should also report any bands you encounter to the Bird Banding Lab. You can do that online at www.reportband.gov, or call 1-800-327-BAND. You’ll need the band number, or numbers. If you are lucky, you might even find a reward band. You’ll also need to know where, when and how you recovered the bird, and for your contact information, in case there are any questions. The USGS Patuxent Bird Banding Lab will send you a certificate of appreciation that includes information about the sex, age and species of the bird, and where and when it was banded. You can keep the band too. 

Next time you are out looking at birds, keep an eye out for the glint of a small piece of metal on a bird’s leg. If you are lucky, you just might see a work of science in progress.  


This year marks the Centennial of the First Migratory Treaty, which was the first international agreement in American history to protect migratory birds wherever they live, breed and rest. In honor of that occasion, and one hundred years of“banding together for birds,” we are sharing this blog on actual bird banding. Learn more at www.fws.gov/birds/MBTreaty100/ or #birdyear.

-- Christopher Deets, Migratory Bird Program

Protecting the Pacific: National Wildlife Refuges and Marine National Monuments

Monk seal on a beachMonk seal relaxing on the beach of a national wildlife refuge in the  Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Photo credit Mark Sullivan/NOAA

From coral reefs to deep sea mounts, abyssal plains and volcanic features, protected lands and waters stretch from the Marianas Trench to Midway Atoll. Refuges and monuments represent some of the last frontiers of scientific discovery and are a haven for wildlife. 

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