- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2003

TAPPAHANNOCK, Va. — Just 150 feet above the Rappahannock River, the two Cessna float planes hurtle along at 115 mph like a giant pair of orange-and-white ducks eager to join the flocks of Canada geese and other birds migrating south for the winter.

“You try not to chase; you try to get a count on them right away,” pilot-biologist Jim Wortham explains, as wind buffets the plane. Mr. Wortham of Baltimore casts an eye from river to instrument panel and back. “We got all kinds of geese in the air right here.”

A small cadre of government field biologists skilled in back-country flying spread out each year from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, including Alaska and Canada, implementing the largest and possibly the most-reliable wildlife survey in the world.

Sixteen pilot-biologists with the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service crisscross North America’s four major bird-migration flyways, checking the populations of waterfowl such as ducks and geese, and the health of the ponds and marshy areas they inhabit.

Across the river, pilot-biologist Fred Roetker is gaining on, and communing with, the clamoring creatures. His plane’s floats jut out like oversized web feet.

“To understand ducks, you need to fly with the ducks. When you’re doing this job, you tend to think like a duck,” says Mr. Roetker, of Lafayette, La. “When we’re surveying ducks and we come to a point in the river, we pick the duckiest habitat. We go the duckiest route.”

Together, the pilots log 80,000 miles a year, most of them at little more than treetop level along transecting lines that help them organize the searches and data. Cruising at these unusually low altitudes requires special permission from federal authorities.

Their job is to count breeding populations of waterfowl in the northernmost regions and wintering populations to the south, while gauging the ecological health of myriad shorelines and ponds used as habitat. They simultaneously fly, count ponds and tally migratory birds such as mallard, wood duck, gadwall, American wigeon, green-winged teal, blue-winged teal, northern shoveler, northern pintail, redhead, canvasback and scaup.

As their planes cut through the air, Mr. Wortham and Mr. Roetker speak into headsets embedded in their helmets. Their voices are recorded on laptop computers with global-positioning systems (GPS) that match their observations with locations.

Each is joined by another wildlife biologist, counting from the other side of the aircraft. The data focus on where the birds are and the health of their homes.

The two major aerial surveys are done in spring and winter — the next one starts just after New Year’s Day. Because the survey of wintering grounds is so large, pilots employed by state agencies help out.

The spring survey of breeding grounds is the more important. It is the basis for the population counts and is checked against ground surveys by the Canadian Wildlife Service.

The Fish and Wildlife Service also mails out questionnaires to thousands of hunters, asking how many birds each killed. Wildlife officers in the United States and Canada and private researchers also band 1 million nongame and migratory birds annually to check where they travel and how many are taken by hunters.

Other than some new technology such as the laptops and GPS systems, the survey has changed little as it approaches its 50th anniversary in 2005, said Paul Schmidt, who has overseen it for the past 10 years. Mr. Schmidt, who also helps set hunting restrictions, says it’s just as important to protect wetlands as it is the birds.

“f we lose wetlands through whatever practices, either through drought or development, then we are going to lose, in the long term, populations,” Mr. Schmidt says. “Some species are more susceptible to contaminants.”

The survey findings and other data provide the science used to set hunting seasons and bag limits each year and in deciding how best to conserve waterfowl and their habitat, benefiting both hunters and bird watchers.

About 3 million migratory-bird hunters shell out $732 million a year on equipment and another $657 million a year on trip expenses, according to 2001 government figures. Hunting and wildlife enthusiasts who also happen to be presidents or members of Congress tend to keep close tabs on the program.

The Senate delayed the confirmation of Steve Williams, President Bush’s choice to head the Fish and Wildlife Service, until four months after his nomination in September 2001, partly because of a disagreement over the duck-hunting season.

Minnesota’s Democratic senators held up Mr. Williams’ nomination to protest the week-and-a-half extension then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, had Congress add to the end of annual duck-hunting season in six Southern states. Northern hunters should have similar opportunity, they argued.

The Bush administration settled on a compromise last year: Extend the allowable times for hunting season by one week at both the start and end, giving states flexibility to adjust according to when they expect the peak migrations to move through.

Hunting seasons now can be set between the Sunday closest to Sept. 24 and the last Sunday in January but still are bound by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act not to exceed 107 days.

Bruce Batt, chief biologist for Ducks Unlimited, a conservation group founded by hunters, said the changes make sense because recent warmer winters are causing birds to stay longer in the North. “At the end of the day, global warming overwhelms everything we’re doing,” he said.

He calls the Fish and Wildlife Service’s work “the most sophisticated, continental survey of birds or any wildlife in the world.”

Among migratory birds, the blue-winged teal and gadwall are doing particularly well, Mr. Batt says. Two birds, the northern pintail and lesser scaup, are not. Northern pintail, which often nest in farm fields, are sensitive to changes in farming practices. Lesser scaup often nest in northern forests and are getting thinner for reasons still unclear.

But the big worry is the loss of wetlands and swamps where migratory birds like to hang out. “Year in, year out, there seems to be a net loss, which is something we’re working hard to stop and reverse,” Mr. Batt said.

From a duck’s-eye view, those areas look like an inviting patchwork of rivulets, dank debris, braided marsh, submerged trees and Virginia farmland along the shorelines of the Rappahannock, a long, shimmering snake of coiled water.

Up among the diffuse rays and charcoal-tinged clouds, the duck-minded pilots scope for the duckiest places.

“Everywhere a duck wants to be, people want to develop, because it’s the prettiest place to be,” Mr. Wortham muses, as flocks of geese and black ducks, and a couple of eagles skim the air hundreds of feet below the plane’s wings.

So, just how do ducks think?

“They’re pigs with wings. I think if you asked a duck that, they’d be looking for their next meal,” Mr. Roetker says, pausing to laugh. “When ducks are flying, they’re usually moving to an area to feed or to loaf out of the wind.”

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