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A Bird's Eye View
Doug Smith, Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
May 30, 2004DOUG30

CENTRAL SASKATCHEWAN -- "Look at that -- that's prime duck habitat," Fred Roetker said as we flew 150 feet above a small, pretzel-shaped wetland in Saskatchewan's boreal forest wilderness.

A vast expanse of wetlands, rivers, lakes and forest unfurled to the horizon and beyond from his floatplane.

"There's a pair of mallards. There's some scaup," said Roetker as the landscape slipped past.

Earlier in the day, he flew over Saskatchewan's prairie pothole region -- part of the breadbasket of North American duck production -- and saw far less water and fewer ducks. Only a few of the many indentations that pockmark the prairie held water.

"It's pretty dry," he said.

Roetker, 52, is one of a dozen U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pilot-biologists who annually partake in the largest and longest-running wildlife survey in the world. Each May for the past 50 years, the waterfowl population survey has been conducted on waterfowl breeding grounds in Canada and the U.S. to assess North America's waterfowl population.

The results are key in determining the status of waterfowl and are used to set waterfowl hunting season lengths and bag limits.

"It's critical," said Jim Voelzer, a pilot-biologist and section chief in charge of the survey. "For us to have a hunting season, we have to have population information."

Roetker, who surveys the central and northern half of Saskatchewan, and fellow pilot-biologist Phil Thorpe, 40, of Lakewood, Colo., who surveys the southern half of the province, talked about their jobs recently between flights at their Saskatoon motel.

Roetker is an Illinois native who has been flying for 30 years and doing the waterfowl survey for the past 20 years. He loves both flying and ducks. Like many of the wildlife biologists who work on the survey, he's an avid waterfowl hunter.

But being a pilot-biologist is more than a job, it's a lifestyle. "This is not a job for everyone," Roetker said.

Each May, he packs his gear, leaves his home and family in Lafayette, La., (including his 14-year-old son, Drake), and flies in his single-engine Cessna 206 north to Saskatchewan to count ducks.

He stays five weeks, living out of motels, remote cabins or lodges. He'll return to Saskatchewan in July for a follow-up waterfowl production survey, and again in September for a goose survey. He flies other surveys and is involved in duck-banding studies.

All told, Roetker might be away from home for five or six months a year and rack up 400 hours in the air.

"When most families are doing family things, we're doing this," Roetker said. "It is a challenge. My wife steps up to the plate and fills the bill."

And being a bush pilot isn't always as romantic as it sounds, Roetker said: "It's also hard work."

There are long days in the air, long waits on the ground during bad weather, hours spent at the computer -- and those many weeks away from home.

Thorpe, also a father, is in a similar situation.

Still, both men consider it a dream job.

"The combination of doing two things you love to do -- flying and being involved with waterfowl -- is great," said Thorpe, who has been flying for 23 years and has been a pilot-biologist for eight years.

"Yeah, it's often a sacrifice for the family, but few ever leave the job," said Voelzer. "They're pretty special people. They have a great deal of initiative. They're comfortable working alone. They're using equipment that's worth upwards of $1.5 million. People's lives are at stake every day they go out."

Roetker and Thorpe said the dangers of low-level flying are minimal. "Obstacles are the biggest thing," Roetker said.

"There's a lot of stuff down there to hit," Thorpe said, citing power lines and transmission towers. "But if it was inherently dangerous, I wouldn't do it."

Added Roetker: "We've had some accidents, but there hasn't been a fatality since they started doing this 50 years ago. It's an incredible safety record."

How it works

So how do the Canadian and U.S. wildlife workers go about counting all the ducks in North America?

They don't.

The waterfowl breeding survey is like any scientific survey or poll: by checking a statistically significant sample, officials can project what the populations are over the continent.

"It's not a census. We don't count every duck. It's an index," said Voelzer.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pilot-biologists each fly with another wildlife biologist observer. They follow established transects or sections -- straight segments that are mostly unchanged over the 50-year survey.

Each transect is a quarter-mile wide and usually runs along a section line, which means, except in the forest wilderness, there's usually a gravel road at the center. Each transect can be up to 18 miles long.

The entire survey includes 50,000 linear miles. The window of opportunity is small; the survey is always done in May, when all waterfowl species have returned to their breeding grounds.

The pilot and observer each count waterfowl one-eighth of a mile -- 660 feet -- on their respective sides of the plane. Marks on the struts of the plane show how far to the horizon they need to look to cover the one-eighth mile.

The pilot and observer then record what they see on a tape recorder.

"Pair of mallards. Pair of scaup," Roetker says as he flies about 100 miles per hour above the lake country, demonstrating that he can easily identify the species of ducks he sees just 150 feet below.

"There's no special skills here," he says. "We're not any more expert at identifying waterfowl than people who hunt a lot."

Unlike in fall, the birds are in full breeding plumage, making identification easier.

Technological advances have greatly helped survey workers. When the observers report seeing a duck, the recorder is linked to a computer, which marks the GPS coordinates of each sighting. Later, back in their motel room, the pilots and their observers transfer the day's data into a laptop computer.

Counting on the


The air survey only gives a partial picture of the waterfowl population.

"We obviously don't see every duck while flying 90 knots [100 mph] in an airplane," Roetker said.

That's why the pilots coordinate their survey with the Canadian Wildlife Service, which conducts simultaneous ground surveys. Ground crews count the number of ducks on portions of the same aerial survey routes.

The ground crew members, working in teams of three or four, literally hike around or through wetlands and ponds, flushing ducks to get an accurate count, said Dan Nieman, a Canadian Wildlife Service wildlife biologist based in Saskatoon.

"It's a lot of work," he said. "They have to be in good shape."

The ground crews cover most of the survey area, but not the boreal forest lake country that Roetker flies because its remoteness.

Officials then compare what the aerial biologists have seen with what the ground crews have counted and come up with a correction factor for each species.

"For highly visible species like mallards, canvasbacks and scaup, we generally see a rate of 2 to 2.5 percent," Nieman said, meaning the ground crew counts about twice the number of those ducks than the aerial observers spotted.

The correction factor can be much higher for less-visible species, such as blue-winged or green-winged teal, Nieman said. And the correction factors vary year to year, depending on vegetation and water levels.

The correction factors are plugged into the aerial survey numbers, and the result is the estimated breeding population -- a critical number that tells wildlife biologists in both countries just how ducks are faring.

Numbers are solid

Because of all the checks and balances used during the survey, both Nieman and Roetker believe the final numbers are solid.

For example, the ground crews use two-way radios to communicate with one another so they don't count ducks twice.

And if the ground crews can't get out in the field within two days of the aerial survey, the pilots must fly it again and recount the number of waterfowl.

"We believe the results are meaningful and accurate," Nieman said. "It's critical to our management of waterfowl continentally. The survey has been subjected to rigorous review. It provides a reliable estimate of numerous species.

"It's the one time waterfowl are on the breeding territories and are visible and can be counted. It's a unique opportunity."

Roetker acknowledges that in recent years, a key question from hunters, including some of his friends, is: "Where are the ducks?"

Duck hunting has been poor in the South, and some southern hunters have speculated that ducks are wintering farther north because of food availability.

"I'm just as frustrated as anyone else," Roetker said. "There's a lot of unanswered questions about ducks."

But Roetker has faith that the spring waterfowl population survey gives wildlife managers -- and hunters -- an accurate picture of North America's duck breeding population.

"I've been doing it for 20 years, and I can't think of a better way to do it," he said.

Doug Smith is at [email protected].
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