I’ll start this post by admitting outright that I am not an expert on this topic by any means, but I wanted to share with you all a little of what I do know…
California Waterfowl Association’s Post Season Pintail Banding efforts are well underway and have been since the Jr. Waterfowl Hunt ended a few weeks ago. Although California DFW and CWA Staff team up during Pre-Season Banding, Post-Season is all on CWA Staff to trap and band a 1,000 bird goal!
Both Pre and Post Season Pintail Banding are done by a pretty cool trapping method called rocket netting. Yep, that’s right. Nets are launched over big groups of birds in ponds that have been pre-baited. The whole set up of these traps is pretty neat to see and I hope that the pictures I’ve included in this post can paint you all a good enough picture to explain how it all works. Nets are folded accordion style in a line and the rear edge of the net is staked to the ground by ropes while the front edge of the net is attached to the rockets by longer ropes. The rockets, which are made out of heavy duty pipe, are driven into the ground at an angle. The charges are placed in the rocket and the wires attached to an electrical blasting line. Once all the charges are connected, the line is tested, and if safe, it is attached to the blasting machine.
And now comes the tricky part. A waiting game! The prime netting area is only about 10’ from the edge of the field out into the pond. Not a very big space, especially when it is dense with mud hens! It is truly amazing how leery or anxious the birds can be, paddling in and out of target range in a matter of seconds. It is similar to the synchronized swimming I did as a child at church camp each summer, a painful to watch water dance of big clusters of coots and pintail. You would never believe how much a coot can eat. You would think their little tummies would fill up rather quickly then leave the bait for a little rest and relaxation while letting their pintail friends in for a helping or two. Only occasionally do they leave the feed pile long enough to allow the ratio of pintail to become greater than the number of coots within the target area. As you can imagine, this waiting game entails a lot of staring through spotting scopes and binoculars. It also results in an odd level of pressure as you find yourself asking, if it’s go – time, repetitively. How ‘bout now? How’s it looking? How many birds do you think are in range? My friend and co-worker, CWA Biologist Brian Huber, is the guy who calls the shots for this banding crew. Heck when we are staking out multiple ponds at a time, I find it even stressful to call Brian on the radio to come look at the pond I am watching.
Anything and everything can hamper our hopes and dreams of launching a net. Eagles, fog, ag helicopters, raccoons out on a morning swim. You name it; anything can spook those birds out of the baited areas within a matter of second and then the waiting game begins all over again…But, when the stars do align, a big group of birds are in place and the perfect window of opportunity presents itself, the call is made to detonate and rockets are fired! The blasting machine and the electrical charge ignite the rockets, propelling the net over the birds and the race is on. Biologists running full throttle through muddy rice fields, in waders, carrying at least two crates each, begin the task of removing the birds from the net as quickly and gently as possible. The birds are gathered into crates and once the net is cleared the crates are hauled to shore and the banding process begins.
So why do we go through all this and band birds, you might ask? Because banding data is important! When a band is found, the date and location are reported to the Bird Banding Laboratory. Bands are more often than not, reported by hunters who have shot the banded birds. This data is recorded and then used to evaluate the effect of hunting mortality on waterfowl populations. The data is analyzed based on the number of bands recovered through time compared with the number of bands originally put on birds. Band recovery data is used to describe migration routes and the likeliness of the birds to utilize breeding and wintering areas. I like to sit and look over banding data in my spare time. It’s pretty amazing stuff.
To wrap this post up, if I had to sum up pintail banding in one word, I would chose the word patience or maybe persistence. Either way you get the idea that many hours are spent on what can simply be described as a waiting game. I’m lucky to say that I get to help with these banding events on occasion and many people always ask how they can volunteer or get involved with helping. The uncertainty of a successful launch makes these events hard to coordinate volunteers, but it is possible if a certain person is willing to drive long hours before sunrise or late in the afternoon and be okay with a no-go once they get there. Another truly appreciated way that folks can help is by donating or giving to the CWA Partnering for Pintail Program. Through the Partnering for Pintail Program, California Waterfowl is working with partners to improve regulations for pintail and hopefully ensure future opportunities for the California hunter and banding data is a vital component for this cause.