My summer vacation was killing me. I was working my butt off on freelance assignments, getting into that morning-noon-and-night slavery mode. I needed a break.
So what did I do? I drove five hours north to - you guessed it! - do more work.
And it turned out to be one of the best vacations I've ever had.
Last fall when I went duck hunting a couple times with my friend Brent up at the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges, he talked a lot about the volunteer work hunters do up there in the summer - duck banding and botulism control. "You should come up!" he said.
Now, I already contribute to and do volunteer work for California Waterfowl - mostly writing and organizing. But I've never done any hands-on work with the ducks, and it felt like it was time. I told Brent I was in.
You know. Kind of like an alien abduction.
Here's how it looked when fellow volunteer Kelly was on the net:
The only thing that baffles me now is how I failed to recognize how amazingly fun this would be.
It was hunting without the kill. It took skill to net the ducks - they weren't so dazed that they couldn't manage lots of evasive maneuvers when those nets came at them. There was lots of laughing every time they outsmarted us.
But there was also a huge element of playing Santa Claus.
The ducks we were catching would be sporting jewelry when we released them back into the water. Bling was everywhere for us that night, so it wasn't special to us. But any hunter who brings down one of these birds, be it on opening weekend or in seven years, will be delighted to find the band. (Hunters, if you get a duck banded the night of Aug. 5-6 at the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, it might just be a duck I handled that night.)
Personally, I've never gotten a banded bird before. I sure wouldn't mind getting one. And it would be amazing to get one that I helped band. (It's not that crazy of an idea - it's happened to Brent a couple times.)
With that in mind, I had a special mission that night.
The folks from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who were running this operation were targeting gadwall, but of course we could bring in any duck we could get.
I wanted spoonies.
I love the Northern Shoveler. I've always liked underdogs, and the spoonie is just that, mocked for its ridiculous bill, denigrated - often unfairly - for its taste. I think it would be the coolest thing in the world to get a banded spoonie.
So I did my best to net them. I don't even care if I get a banded spoonie myself. I just like the idea of some hunter who thinks he's just "settled" for a spoonie getting a happy surprise.
And, funny thing: On the hunt, I've learned that a wounded spoonie is the wiliest bird ever, the most likely to escape capture. That night, I found out they're just as hard to net when you're spotlighting 'em. It took me several tries each time.
But I was successful, as were other netters. I'm pretty sure we banded at least three or four spoonies that night.
When we finally wrapped up for the evening around 1:30 a.m., Colin Tierney - a contract bander for Cal Waterfowl - told me he and his sidekick Jeremiah Heise would be going out again on their own for the next few days. I could come along if I wanted.
Oh yeah, I wanted.
Colin and Jeremiah were using a different method: At night, they were putting out traps baited with wheat - kind of like giant lobster traps designed to funnel birds in but make it hard for them to get out. Then in the morning, they'd check the traps and start banding.
They were targeting mallards, and whenever they'd find a good adult drake, they'd slap a $100 reward band on him. (Hunt, Eat, Live! wrote about those bands last season - click here to check out that post.)
Strangely enough, getting the birds out of that trap in broad daylight was even crazier than netting them in the dark. Here's what I mean:
Yeah. The second you walk in, the ducks start flapping around like crazy, spraying you with water. You crowd them into a corner, and just when you reach one of them, they dive and swim away from you, hidden from view by the murky water.
Funny thing is as much as they don't like being nabbed like that, they must not mind too much, because they will go into traps over and over and over - easily one-third of the birds in the traps already had bands.
Those that didn't got the treatment: Check the age and condition of the bird by inspecting the wings. Take some measurements. Clamp on a band. Weigh the bird. If he's got enough feathers to fly (many birds are still molting), give him a little send off. If not, put him back in the crate to be escorted to the water when the whole batch was done.
Here's what that looked like:
Man, it was fun.
Normally when I'm handling ducks, it's because I've killed them, which is a bittersweet moment. But on this day, I wouldn't be taking them home with me - I wanted them to go on and thrive - so I handled them tenderly, uttering soothing endearments in hopes it would ease the irritation and indignity of their ordeal.
It was nice to handle them and admire them in this context. This was the first time that my relationship with the ducks involved giving, not just taking.
For my last day in the area, Brent and I planned to go out and do botulism control.
Botulism breaks out at the refuge every summer when water levels start to drop and water temperatures rise, creating perfect conditions for the botulism bacteria. Ducks start to sicken and die. When the dead ones float on the water, flies lay eggs on them. The resulting maggots look yummy to ducks, who stop by for a bite to eat. But those maggots are loaded with concentrated botulism toxin - it takes just three or four to kill a perfectly healthy duck.
You can't get rid of the bacteria completely, but you can really limit how many ducks die by patrolling the refuges and picking up the stinking, rotting carcasses of dead ducks. That was what we'd be doing that day.
Strangely enough, I was looking forward to this part of the trip because I knew my actions could well save more ducks than I could possibly kill this coming season.
But alas, the weather had been cool, so botulism had not become a problem yet. We picked up three carcasses that may or may not have been casualties of botulism: a pelican, a coot and a grebe.
So our botulism patrol ended up being more of a tour of Tule Lake and a preview of the ducks we'll be seeing this coming waterfowl season. We were able to get a great view, because a lot of the poor ducks are still molting and can't fly away, so they flap pathetically across the water in the face of an oncoming boat:
Lotsa canvasbacks on that lake!
That was all more than a week ago now. The freelance deadlines have closed in on me again. My day job is about to hit me like a ton of bricks too: School starts Aug. 31. And fall hunting is just around the corner. Doves on Sept. 1, ducks on Oct. 24. We're getting pretty birdy around here.
But this trip was - and remains - a huge bright spot in a very hectic summer, a time of giving to help balance out the time of taking. Many thanks to Brent and his wife Suzy for putting me up (and putting up with me) so I could have this opportunity.
And come January, when the waterfowl season comes to its melancholy end, I won't immediately start thinking about the next October. Instead, I'll be thinking about the next summer.
And I'll be smiling.
© Holly A. Heyser 2009