Helicopter serves as ground crew

Written by Paul Padding
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Paul Padding.If you’ve been following the progress of the prairie survey crews, you know that the pilot biologists and their observers are working with ground crews that conduct thorough searches of some segments of the lines the air crews fly. This allows us to create a Visibility Correction Factor—to improve overall survey estimates. But since roads are literally few and far between in northern Quebec, a ground crew would have no access to the survey transects the pilot biologist flies. So, we take a different approach to “ground truthing” here. After the fixed-wing air crew (Jim Wortham and Scott Boomer) flies a 180-mile survey line, we use a helicopter to conduct the thorough follow-up search of an 18-mile segment of that line.

It takes Jim and Scott 10 minutes to fly an 18-mile segment at survey speed, and they get one chance to see and identify birds that are out in the open, or birds that flush, as they fly the segment. They usually have to make split-second decisions on the species and sex of the birds they see. The helicopter crew, in contrast, spends about an hour and a half on a single segment, more if there’s a lot of water on the segment. We fly the perimeter of each lake, river, and large wetland on the segment at low altitude, trying to flush any birds near the edges out into open water where we can count and identify them accurately. We have the luxury of being able to hover near diving birds (like scoters and mergansers) until they surface, or of chasing birds that have flushed from the segment before we could get a good look, so we can be sure we’ve identified them correctly. In addition to the larger bodies of water, our pilot gives us a close look at every small wetland on the segment, and follows every little stream or creek.

Samantha Gibbs and I arrived in Toronto the afternoon of May 16, where Doug Holtby, our helicopter pilot, picked us up. Doug works for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources; he’s very experienced at this work, a terrific helicopter pilot and a great guy to work with. We rendezvoused with Jim and Scott, and the next day we all flew to Chibougamau, Quebec, where we were in position to begin surveying the 10 transect lines that we have in northern Quebec. Unlike many of the prairie crews, we got lucky with the weather and both fixed-wing and helicopter crews were able to fly 5 of the next 6 days. That streak ended today, and now we’re in Wabush, Labrador (right near the Quebec border) with one line left to fly in the northern Quebec area.

Water levels are lower than normal here, but I doubt if that has much effect on the breeding duck numbers. It still seems like there’s water everywhere, with lakes, rivers, and string bogs as far as you can see from any altitude. It’s striking to me that there are no ducks or geese on the great majority of these bodies of water and wetlands; I suppose the birds only select the most productive ones, but they sure aren’t distinguishable to my eye. The most common species we see in this area are usually black ducks, scoters (surf and black), mergansers, goldeneyes, Canada geese, green-winged teal, and scaup. This is only my third year here, but compared to the other 2 years, I’ve seen more hooded mergansers, fewer goldeneyes, and about the same numbers of the other species.

Helicopter crew: Paul Padding (L) and Dr. Samantha Gibbs (R), USFWS, and Doug Holtby (center), Senior Pilot with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.<br />
 (Credit:  Samantha Gibbs, USFWS.)

Helicopter crew: Paul Padding (L) and Dr. Samantha Gibbs (R), USFWS, and Doug Holtby (center), Senior Pilot with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. Credit: Samantha Gibbs, USFWS.

Helicopter

Helicopter "ground crew" takes a long, hard look at waterfowl nesting habitat in northern Quebec. Credit: Jim Wortham, USFWS.

Helicopter

Helicopter "ground crew" takes a long, hard look at waterfowl nesting habitat in northern Quebec. Credit: Jim Wortham, USFWS.