Flock Shoot and You’re Done: Observations of a First-Time Aerial Observer

Written by Kevin Doherty
Thursday, May 19, 2011

Photo of Kevin Doherty.As a duck hunter and a guy who spends most of his working time thinking about ducks, grasslands, and wetland conservation, you would think that counting a duck from a plane should be a piece of cake, right? Well not exactly at first. Habitat conditions in southern Alberta are great this year, with abundant waterfowl and full wetlands. Habitat conditions that make a great fall flight make life a little challenging for a first-time observer. I know my ducks and can barrel ID, but I am willing to admit that during a duck ID aerial training flight, the first mixed flock of 20+ ducks I approached at 100 feet off the ground at 100 mph, my brain froze. It reminded me of the first time I hunted bobwhite quail. I had an enormous covey get up in front of me. I unloaded both barrels of my side-by-side and to my amazement missed them all. The lesson: flock shooting makes for a frustrated Labrador! The same holds true when identifying ducks from a plane. The key, as my pilot told me after laughing at my dropped jaw and shaken confidence, is to pick the birds out one at a time just like hunting. Once my brain got used to the speed, new sight image of seeing the birds from above, and the shotgun mentality of “seeing the feathers on the bird you shoot,” I was amazed at how well you can see the birds. Much like a tree stand in the woods, the aerial view really helps you see into the wetlands.

This trip is a unique opportunity to see the prairies from a ducks-eye view. Jim Bredy and I have flown from the short grass prairies and we are currently in the heart of the parklands, surveying north of Edmonton en route to the Boreal Forest. My new duck vantage point has allowed a landscape-level view of a core principle of wildlife biology: habitat matters. As we flew from the Canadian Rockies to the Saskatchewan border and back, it was shocking to see the strong differences in duck densities within a few miles. As a research landscape ecologist, I know this, and it is my job to quantify priority landscapes for conservation. Knowing this and seeing it with your eyes from a duck’s perspective are two different things. When we flew over intact, full wetlands, with enough adjacent grassland nesting cover, the ducks were there in force. In reality, we have seen some ducks on all transects, even in areas converted to farmland that received less snowpack last winter. However, when the wetland and upland conditions aligned, we did not just see ducks, we saw A LOT of DUCKS!

Any long trip has its highs and lows, and we have been gone from our families for about 3 weeks now. My high point was seeing the short grass prairies full of water. Pintails have always been my favorite ducks and I have never seen so many pintails in my life. The low point was seeing firsthand a parkland wetland complex being burned, drained, and filled to create new farmland. As the smoke was still smoldering from the burnt aspen piles, the bulldozer was moving earth and filling the wetlands. I truly am thankful to the USFWS for giving me the opportunity to participate in the 2011 BPOP May Survey. This experience is making me even more excited for October and enjoying the great hunting that our wetlands are going to provide this year!

This managed wetland basin is in the middle of stratum 26, on the west side of Buffalo Lake, near Bashaw, Alberta.  It always has ducks in it, even in dry years.

This managed wetland basin is in the middle of stratum 26, on the west side of Buffalo Lake, near Bashaw, Alberta. It always has ducks in it, even in dry years. Photo by Kevin Doherty, USFWS

Wavy Lake, is located in the apsen/parkland region of Alberta.  It is a large wetland basin approximately 5 miles long and 1 mile wide, located near Daysland.  Historically, it has been an important breeding, production and staging area for waterfowl.  Note the reference point of two artificially constructed nesting islands.  Just last year, most of the  water in this basin was in the area immediately surrounding the nesting islands.  This year the basin is nearly full, and loaded with ducks.

Wavy Lake, is located in the apsen/parkland region of Alberta. It is a large wetland basin approximately 5 miles long and 1 mile wide, located near Daysland. Historically, it has been an important breeding, production and staging area for waterfowl. Note the reference point of two artificially constructed nesting islands. Just last year, most of the water in this basin was in the area immediately surrounding the nesting islands. This year the basin is nearly full, and loaded with ducks. Photos by Dave Fronczak and Kevin Doherty, USFWS