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Story and photos by Mindy Kralicek, from the September/October 2015 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
Each year in late summer at 31 Iowa locations, seclusive wood ducks are captured and banded as part of a U.S. and Canadian effort to learn their migratory pathways, survival rates and breeding areas. The efforts help establish hunting seasons and regulations.
We bump along the rutted dirt road at 4:30 a.m. in blackness, except for tree trunks lit by our headlights. We slow and veer to a stop at an undisclosed site in Louisa County, headlights staring at the wooden wall of a wildlife blind squeezed into the tree line.
The driver, DNR wildlife technician Travis Russell, jumps out and disappears. He’s checking that the net is prepared to launch, as he left it a couple mornings ago.
In a few minutes Russell whispers through my open window, “Wait in the blind while I park the truck in the woods and walk back.”
Obediently, I get out of the truck to follow him around the wooden structure where he feels for the door handle. Once in, I tuck into the farther of two plastic chairs that barely fit inside. The truck rumbles away and the small wooden enclosure is all that protects me from the steamy darkness outside on this August morning.
A twig snaps. A deer snorts. A lone mosquito buzzes around my ear.
A few minutes later, Russell opens the door and sets a dark automobile battery by his feet as he sits. He then whispers, “This is what sets off the rockets. In about an hour, Andy and Kyle will be in the trees back behind the meadow. When they hear rockets go off, they’ll run up and help capture the netted ducks and place them in the holding cage.”
We wait quietly until the first pink-orange haze backlights the eastern tree line. The light grows stronger until the tree line is reflected in the still water, and the dark shapes directly across the water become grasses and sedges. A few insects stretch their legs and wings, adding a pleasant hum to the morning. Several small dark shapes float into the bay without a sound or ripple, and stay about 20 feet from shore. Their numbers grow by ones and twos.
A scattered pile of golden corn in front of the net is what draws the floating black figures near. At each end of the net, a holstered rocket guards the golden treasure, standing as still as the dark water under the wood ducks.
The light broadens. A few ducks back-flap their wings and skid to a stop on the water’s surface. They swim quietly, joining the others. A few birds smoothly make their way to the shore and loaf in the shallows.“The birds near the shore are likely from this year’s hatch,” whispers Russell. “The young ones are less cautious.”
Sure enough, a female calls them with a squeaky “oo-eep,” but they step out on shore, ignoring her warning. A few more ducks ease to shore and a dozen dawdle there. A few mosey up to the corn and begin dabbling. More ducks fly in and swim into the bay. Within 10 minutes, ducks are crowded at the corn stash in front of the net.
“We prefer to wait until there are about 100 at the bait and the birds are calm. Then the net is sprung. We don’t want to shoot off the rockets more than absolutely necessary, because the ducks learn quickly what that blast is about. Wood ducks are skittish anyway,” explains Russell in a hushed tone.We both count and agree there are about 80 birds. Russell holds the trigger in his hand, but before he can push it, the ducks erupt into the sky. Whatever startled them is unknown.
“It happens a lot. This method of trapping requires a lot of patience,” sighs Russell.
The birds are skittish for a while, but eventually they amble to the corn again. Soon the rockets are ignited.
Less flashy, but effective At a wetland in Clay County, Prairie Lakes Wildlife Unit staffers wear waders to enter the shallow lake to a number eight-shaped wire cage. There are a number of wood ducks calmly circling inside the trap, bypassing the pile of golden corn on a wooden platform. One tries to fly out, but the netted roof is secure. Rob Patterson enters the cage and it’s an immediate burst of feathers and a conundrum of sharp squeaks and turbid water as wood ducks try to escape.
Patterson is sly to their maneuvers and snatches them one by one, whether they dive, fly, climb or splash. He passes each duck—brigade style—to Lucas Straw at the cage door, to Jeff Feisel standing in the water, to Andy Huck at the holding cage on shore. After 20 or so are collected, the effort switches to banding so the remaining caged birds calm down.
Bryan Hellyer hands what is left of the last string of 100 aluminum bands to Patterson, who writes down information for each newly banded bird: its consecutive eight-digit number, age, sex and overall health.
The banding procedure“Wood ducks, by nature, take handling by people fairly well,” says Hellyer. “When they are held firmly, they calm right down. When they’re cold, we hold them close to our bodies to warm them. Birds that dove to avoid being caught need to dry out before we release them, or they just plunk in the water instead of flying. They’re okay. They just need to shake the water off and swim in the sunlight for a bit. We always release the ducks where they are caught and as soon as we have them banded.”
Besides the band number, the telephone number of the bird band report center—800-327-2263—and a website—reportband.gov—is on each band. This contact information is provided so hunters that harvest banded birds can immediately report the number to the North American Bird Banding Program.
The bands are sized for the species of bird. Size 6—about half the diameter of a penny—fits wood ducks. Each is crimped to the point of closing the band so it is not too tight and cannot slip past the “ankle.”
A couple of birds already have bands from this year’s effort and are immediately released. The numbers on birds banded in previous years are recorded.