Monday, August 24, 2009

Alien abduction and the other duck season

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.

* * *
The first night we did banding, it was just like going on my first hunt. I had no idea what to expect. I just knew the vague outlines of the drill: We'd zoom around on airboats looking for ducks. The driver would spotlight ducks, rendering them dazed and confused. We would net the ducks like fish. When we had enough in our crate, we'd bring them back to shore to be banded. Then we'd release them, a little stressed out, but not worse for the wear.

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


native said...

Wow Holly!
What a great story, and also inspiring as well.
Thanks for the work you all have done and especially for sharing the event by prose.

Sarah said...

I love it. You had me laughing before I even got to the page with the title on the html link. Alien Abduction indeed! You’re the best writer in the hunting world Holly. Bar none.

Holly Heyser said...

Native: Thanks! I think I got a tiny taste of what you get to experience a lot, helping lots of these animals thrive so we can hunt a few of them.

Sarah, I don't think I got to even half of the comedy here. Chasing birds that can't fly is pretty hilarious. I mean, you feel sorry for them, but you can't stop yourself from giggling.

The cool part is when you've got them in your lap to band them and they finally calm down. I think it's that moment - where they accept that you're not going to hurt them - that is the most touching.

And you don't want that duck's acceptance to last. Yes, I want to shoot ducks. But I always find myself rooting for the ones clever enough to evade me.

hutchinson said...


Kudos to you. Great work! On this, you and I really can connect!

This is actually a small taste of what I do -- some of what I do. I'm out there often with nets and raptor gloves and pet carriers, rescuing the injured, ducks, songbirds, raptors, mammals. You name it, it happens. Of course, I always get a bit attached to their well-being and ultimate fate, because it's common to follow their progress for days or weeks on end.

You obviously have the balance of care and pragmatism it takes to be good at this. You have to care tremendously, and yet detach enough to do the hard work of helping. It's a very tough balance -- for me, anyway. I agree with you about the emotional response. When a wild animal realizes that you will be kind and merciful, there are many times I've been brought to tears, particularly when the rescue is in response to human injury. You feel like you're balancing out the bad with some good -- even if it's one small drop in a hopeless ocean. But even when they remain terrified (as wild animals usually remain, rightly so) there's just reward in being a part of their rescue and release.

I've often wished that everyone could have the privilege of being "hands on" with wildlife (not dead) -- to have access rarely afforded humans. You obviously have the knack and I'm so gratified to learn you'll be working more with the ducks. They are funny! And there is so much personality variation, even with species. Just like us.

I believe there would be much less disregard in this world for wildlife and habitat if everyone had these types of experiences. Thank you for writing about it. Unfortunately, most people won't go through fish and game wildlife requirements and training just for the fun of it. And it's the only way you're allowed to have close contact with wild animals (for the most part).

Much credit to you for taking this on. And if you ever decide to hang up your rifle -- I know, unlikely, but you never can tell -- I can assure you there are tons of wildlife hospitals and rescuers that can use your skills. (Sorry, you know I always have to throw one of those in there. But I swear, it's the best thing I've ever done and the best thing I'll ever do. Oh hell, we'll take you in our ranks, even with the gun . . . if you want to do it in your free time. :)

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks Hutch!

As a hunter, I've known that I support more animals than I kill through taxes I pay on guns and ammunition, and money I contribute to organizations. And for many hunters, that may be all they get to do (or all they want to do).

But it really is satisfying being part of something more direct. With the banding, I was with guys whose operation was funded by some of those dollars I contribute, so I got to complete that circle.

Being a teacher gives me the luxury of being able to contribute subtantial chunks of time in the summer. I definitely see myself doing more of this. It gives me, in a strange way (maybe not) a sense of community, not just with the fellow hunters, but the animals too. I know my view of their world isn't yet, and may never be, complete, but I feel like I've seen a little more of it.

The Hunter's Wife said...

Holly, It's just amazing all you do in the outdoors as well as for the outdoors. Really. I could never say that enough about you.

suzee said...

Holly, I hope you recover a band someday! A friend who's an avid bird hunter shot a banded bird, felt it was pretty special, and had the band made into an engagement ring for his bride to be... that's been afew years ago and they are happily married with two kids, the youngest boys name is Gage... I guess you could say that his wife had fair warning well before hand of his hunting passion!

Blessed said...

Now that sounds like a great experience. I would really enjoy being able to participate in a project like that!

Josh said...

This is absolutely fantastic stuff, Holly. I remembered back to my time rescuing shorebirds at work. It is another life-changing moment, dear to my heart.

Anonymous said...

For sure the bird work it to be commended.

A big Plus is look at all the time you got both on the water and travelling around in what used to be my fav waterfowl habitat area!

You can never learn that area too well, and look at all the extra learning you got to do?

My guess is you'll be returning to that area here in the next few months?

I'm jealous!

Bill C.-Orygun

SimplyOutdoors said...

In this post you've uncovered one of the best things about hunters: we tend to give a whole lot more than what we take.

Banding sounds like a lot of fun, and will make the hunting season much more fulfilling.

What a great idea.

Unknown said...

That sounds like such an awesome experience! I've wanted to band birds ever since I was a kid and saw a banding demonstration at a nature center.

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks everyone!

Jody, stop making me blush. Someone who gets summers off should do this kind of thing!

Bill C., I don't know how much learning I did. Those waters look really different at 5 a.m...

Jon Roth said...

Holly - when I worked for Dr. Bob at CWA in the late 90's, one of my favorite things to do was to go out banding with the biologists. I never went on the night runs, we only did the bait cages, but I totally agree, it was a BLAST. There is something very gratifying to know that you are contributing to wildlife convservation in a very hands on way. And the thought of harvesting a duck that you helped band was a very cool indeed. Heck, you've even convinced me to shoot a spoony this year! :)

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

So cool and a great piece too