The hiss of wing flapping moves through the forest as a common goldeneye lands in a nest box mounted on the side of a tree near Moose Creek Dam in the North Pole, Alaska. Focused on laying her eggs within the cozy enclosure of this man-made wooden structure, the bird ignores her vital role in a unique scientific study.
Through a cooperative effort between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Region, the team recently concluded its 25th summer of using nesting boxes to learn more about l duck ecology at the Chena River Lakes Flood Control Project.
“The project involves serious dedication, long hours, bad mosquitoes, cold water and lots of hiking,” said Justin Kerwin, senior park ranger on federal property.
Scientists use information gathered from field research to assess the short-term effects of weather conditions, such as a late spring break-up or a rainy summer, on the breeding productivity of birds, while determining how climate change influences the species. It also gives biologists the ability to assess the impact of red squirrels and pine martens, common predators of goldeneyes, on the population, according to Eric Taylor, supervising wildlife biologist with the migratory bird program at the Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska Region.
Through analysis of the long-term dataset, scientists found that common golden hens now initiate egg laying 14 days earlier than when the study began in 1997, likely indicating the effects of global warming in Alaska. .
“Such results simply aren’t possible unless you have the ability to evaluate a continuous data stream over a long period of time,” Taylor said.
For this endeavor to succeed, it takes a talented team of researchers in the field to gather the information needed to expand the scientific knowledge base. College students are ideal candidates for this job and benefit greatly from the experience of on-the-job training in waterfowl ecology, leadership, and decision-making.
“Since 1997, the Fish and Wildlife Service has worked with USACE, which has provided funds to support four graduate students and more than 40 undergraduate students attending universities and colleges in the United States, Germany, and Japan” , Taylor said.
This year’s research team consisted of two researchers from Mississippi State University – graduate student Riley Porter and undergraduate student George Williams.
“My experience on Project Goldeneye has been amazing and life changing,” Porter said. “Being able to work with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska on waterfowl is literally a dream come true.”
Having lived in the state for six years prior, Williams was looking for an opportunity to return to the final frontier while working in a field he loves.
“The reason I study wildlife biology stems from my outdoor experiences in Alaska,” he said. “Because of this, my goal has been to return to working with Alaskan wildlife. This project gave me that opportunity, and I relished my time here.
Working with officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and USACE park rangers from the Chena Project, the students track the species of birds that use the nest boxes and mark the chicks that hatch. Students should monitor and time their visits to the boxes to ensure they tag and catalog each chick before it leaves the nest.
When the eggs hatch, there is only about a 24-hour window to attach a small metal tag to each duckling before they jump out of the box and head for the nearest body of water. , according to Kerwin.
“The fieldwork for this project is very demanding, but teaches very quickly what it will take to be successful in this profession,” Porter said. “We work 12 to 15 hour days almost every day, seven days a week. However, the reward is being able to handle hundreds of ducks and even more ducklings.
In addition to coping with the long hours required to complete their tasks, the students found creative ways to catch the birds safely, avoiding injury to themselves and the ducks.
“Being able to handle the same birds continuously for two months shows you how unique individual birds are,” Williams said. “After a while we discovered that each bird had its own personality.”
For skittish birds, the team would play recorded blackbird calls to mask the sounds made when walking on dry leaves carrying an extending ladder so that incubating hens would stay in the nest box and allow Porter and Williams to catch them. Additionally, the team had plenty of extra clothes to change into after encounters with defecating ducks as a defense. However, most hens were easy to catch and handle when measured, weighed and banded or tagged.
“Barrow’s Goldeneyes are an amazing species,” Porter said. “While these birds are not endangered, that does not mean they are not a beautiful bird to study. Goldeneyes are known for the male’s elaborate and complex mating display which consists of up to 14 movements different that portray the superiority of the bird over other suitors.
During fieldwork, the project team often encounters community members who notice the boxes and see tagged waterfowl.
“Building public awareness has really been one of the most rewarding and fun parts of this project,” Taylor said. “Talking to a family with youngsters about ‘ducks that nest in boxes’ or ducks with ‘numbers on their eggs’ and the excitement of seeing day-old ducklings are invaluable experiences and can inspire the next generation. naturalists and conservationists. ”
This year, researchers found that adult goldeneyes occupied 25 of 26 nesting boxes on USACE land and documented 228 ducklings that hatched from these shelters, a record number for the program.
“Other cavity-nesting birds also use the boxes, such as boreal owls, goldeneye ducks and common mergansers,” Kerwin said.
But this is the first year the team has spotted a Barrow’s Goldeneye using a birdhouse. Typically, this species of seabird resides in south-central and southeast Alaska.
“We don’t know how it ended up here (inside the state), or if there are physical changes to the environment that are more appealing, but we were happy to have it there. down and give it a great nesting experience,” says Portier.
The project began in 1993 when students from the University of Alaska Fairbanks student chapter of the Wildlife Society received a grant from Ducks Unlimited to build and install 150 boxes along the upper Chena River in the recreation area. of the local state. In 1997, the program expanded to the Chena River Lakes Flood Control Project, which now houses an additional 26 bird boxes.
“The success of the Common Tourniquet project is the result of the collaboration, support, enthusiasm and genuine interest of project managers, park rangers, facility professionals and other staff at the Chena project,” Taylor said. “The Corps has provided funding, logistical support, field assistance and even built hundreds of nest boxes for this project for over 20 years.”
After being exposed to the harsh indoor climate, the boxes begin to break down and need to be replaced with newer versions that the USACE helps create and install.
Since the program began, the Fish and Wildlife Service has also worked with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Chena River State Recreation Area and Ducks Unlimited. The Fish and Wildlife Service hires, supervises, and mentors students as biological science technicians or as volunteers; organizes field activities; trains and oversees the collection and management of scientific data; and works with collaborators to ensure success.
“Working with the USFWS has been a fun and exciting experience,” Kerwin said. “Both sides have learned a lot from each other over the years.”
After graduating from college, students who worked on the project secured wildlife biology jobs with federal agencies across the United States, including USACE, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and the US Forest Service and with industry, private business and conservation groups.
The Chena Project is the northernmost flood risk mitigation project operated by USACE. The Moose Creek Dam and associated features reduce flooding in the city of Fairbanks in Interior Alaska, while the project’s nearly 20,000 acres of public land provide visitors with a myriad of recreational opportunities.