Counting Ducks

Aerial surveys prove to be a vital tool in waterfowl conservation

Posted: Sunday, December 25, 2005

For a rare few, a day on the job in Alaska involves counting "duck, duck, goose" from the air.

The job is challenging and little-known, though it's been the critical cog in waterfowl conservation in North America for the past 50 years.

Just 12 biologists employed by the U.S. government fly over vast landscapes - including portions of Canada and Mexico - each spring, counting waterfowl and collecting data on the quantity and quality of their wetlands habitat.

The job requires special skills.

While calling out bird names into a voice recorder, biologists like Bruce Conant, also operate the flight controls of a specially designed Beaver airplane. They fly at about 95 mph, positioned a scant 150 feet over the ground.

"In the early days, we used paper maps to navigate and we talked the birds into tape recorders," said Conant, a Fish and Wildlife Service pilot based in Juneau since 1978.

"It's challenging, but it's not unsafe," Conant said. He said no fatal plane accidents have occurred in the 50 years of the North American Waterfowl Population Program.

The job is a little easier now with Global Positioning System technology, which helps the pilots keep their planes locked into the survey's quarter-mile-wide sample areas. Their data can be displayed in a computer-generated map.

The dozen pilot-biologists - three based in Juneau, including Conant, Jack Hodges and the now-retired Jim King - work with biologist Debbie Groves who travels with them and count birds from the passenger side. The team sorts its data and then e-mails it for analysis to a Fish and Wildlife Service center in Maryland.

That data is the foundation for the entire network of North American waterfowl hunting regulations, said Matt Robus, director of wildlife conservation for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Each summer, Robus and other state wildlife officials gather in meetings to propose regulations based on the findings of the annual survey. The final rules must receive final approval from the Department of Interior.

Robus said Alaska and other states are worried about the level of funding for the aerial survey. Though Alaska's survey team has a top-of-the-line Beaver, aircraft in the fleet are aging, he said.

The problem is that federal budgets are flat. "It's getting harder and harder to get the survey done every year," Robus said.

Conant says there is a program in place to buy a couple new airplanes in the Lower 48. He said the survey is the premier study for the agency and would probably be "the last to go," as far as he knows.

Conant said that his crew, flying in Alaska and part of the Yukon River watershed in Canada, fly about 4,000 miles each year for the survey, not including the miles they have to fly to get to and from their counting areas.

The biologists flying over Alaska recorded the decline of the long-tailed duck over the last 20 years, Conant said.

Duck counts were "really up" in the 1950s, but came down over time with the drying out of the Canadian prairies, Conant said. Though the prairies got wet again in the 1990s, some ducks, like the pin-tail, which nest in the prairies, still haven't recovered, Conant said.

The sea ducks, which don't nest in prairies, have also been declining, he said.

The waterfowl data they gathered was also used in the formation of refuges created under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, signed in 1980, he said.

Though their technology has improved, the pilot-biologists fly the same flight paths every year, tracking the birds to their critical spring habitat.

The state team flies to state game refuges and other waterfowl areas in and around Cordova, the Kenai Peninsula, Fairbanks, Tetlin, Minto Flats, Yukon Flats, Bettles, Galena, McGrath, Bristol Bay, the Yukon Delta, up the west coast to Nome, Kotzebue, and over to Old Crow Flats in Yukon Territory, Canada.

"It's easier for us to go up the Porcupine River than for the Canadians to fly over the mountains," Conant explained last week.

The survey, which ends near Glenallen, takes about three to four weeks and 100 hours of flight time. "It's fairly intensive flying. You're not only flying. You are counting birds," Conant said.

Conant, a Navy flier during the Vietnam War, doesn't see the program's strong safety record as any big surprise, even in Alaska where small plane crashes are common.

For one thing, the pilots receive expert training. Also, the survey never changes. "We fly on transect lines that we settled in 1964," Conant said.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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