Clay Baird: Welcome to the Ducks Unlimited podcast. The only podcast about all things waterfowl. From planning insights to science-based discussions about ducks, geese, and issues affecting waterfowl and the wetlands conservation in North America, we bring the resource to you. The DU podcast with your host, Dr. Mike Brasher.
Mike Brasher: On today's episode, I'm again excited to bring you a conversation with Dr. Ray Alisauskas, a research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Ray is adjunct professor with the department of biology at the University of Saskatchewan, and Ray spoke with us on the previous episode about some of the work that he's been involved with on longterm studies of snow geese and Ross's geese in the in the central Arctic. We are back with Ray again to talk a little more in depth about just what they have to deal with on a daily basis in those remote locations. We also want to talk with them about some of the data they collect and how it's used to estimate annual productivity for these species. So Ray, welcome back to the show.
Ray Alisauskas: How are you, Mike?
Mike Brasher: Doing well, and we want to jump right in here on the topic. In the previous episode, we did talk about just how far North these study sites are, and the remoteness of those sites brings with them certain challenges. And so talk about a typical day in the field. I've never been to any of these colonies. That is one of the things that I would like to find a way to do and help somehow just so I could see that system. What's it like up there?
Ray Alisauskas: Well, I mean it's like most places that haven't been developed beyond recognition. It's a beautiful place. I mean when we arrive, it's still winter, snow covered and cold, can be about ... Well, it's definitely below zero, our zero Celsius, freezing, windy. But when we arrived, there's pretty well 24 hours of sunlight and then when spring kicks in, things really take off. Melt happens, birds are arriving, and yeah, a lot of activity, a lot of life comes flooding back with the arrival of all the migrants and the caribou moving through and so on. So yeah, it's-
Mike Brasher: It sounds like a wonderful place.
Ray Alisauskas: Yeah. Well, there are trees but they're only two or three inches tall, so you can see a long ways. Although some days are beautiful, the weather can turn in a jiffy and go from one hour being sunny to fog coming in with high wind, and they compromise your abilities to find out where you are, where you've ended up. So you always have to keep your eye in the sky and that sort of thing. And not only that, there's, besides the wildlife that we're focusing on, there's things like grizzly bears, barren ground grizzlies, and so you need to be prepared to deal with any encounters like that with bear bangers, bear spray, firearms, that kind of thing.
Ray Alisauskas: Other activities involve walking on the ice locally. Like Carrick Lake, our camp is on a large Island in the middle of Carrick Lake. And the reason was there to deter bears from coming on there. But we have to travel over water every day to get to the outlying parts of the colony. And the colony is probably 20 kilometers, 12 miles or so across North to Southeast to West. That's changing, but it's gotten as big as that. That's a lot of ground to cover.
Mike Brasher: And all of these ... Well, I shouldn't say all of them. Most of these nesting colonies are North of the Arctic circle. Is that right?
Ray Alisauskas: Yeah. I mean 90% of the mid-continent population of snow geese and nest North of the Arctic circle or certainly North of 60 degrees latitude. Yeah. The three main regions are the Central Arctic Queen Maud Gulf, Southampton Island and the great plain of the Koukdjuak, which is on the West side of Baffin Island. We talked about a big grassy plain there, started with wetlands and water. But there are other birds that nest farther to the South, probably form about 10% of the mid-continent population. That's based on works been done by photo surveys where they get an idea of how many birds are nesting in each region. Now, that doesn't capture all the birds. We don't know where all the colonies are, but of the ones we do know about, we know that much.
Mike Brasher: And so tell me if I have this right. When you're North of the Arctic circle, that's the point once you get North of that, you're able to see the sun or you get a full 24 hours of daylight in the middle of the summer, right, or at the summer solstice. Is that-
Ray Alisauskas: Right. The sun doesn't set. You watch it come down and then it'll never fully set. For example, on the longest day of the year, June 21st, it'll ... Yeah. You get used to it when you want to sleep, but yeah, 24 hours of sunlight.
Mike Brasher: So what's a typical day for a researcher? Also, how many researchers are at some of these colonies? And what's a typical day for those folks?
Ray Alisauskas: Anywhere from 6 to 12 probably. Again, being focused on the snow and the Ross's geese, what we typically ... Well, there's two kinds of activities. One is, as we talked about in the earlier episode, there's nesting studies which lets us get at the productivity and also banding work, which we mark birds and release them. So we get some information about survival, but we also get some information about productivity during the banding activities as well. So the nesting studies occur obviously during nesting. So at Carrick Lake, that's from the end of May till the middle of July, let's say early July. And so what we do there is we, for the colony, each year, I get in a helicopter and I fly around the perimeter and map out that perimeter of the colony that'll cover about probably 300 square kilometers of the earth's surface.
Ray Alisauskas: Now that's got water and land in there. Obviously geese don't nest on the water, but the land portion within that, it's probably about 200 square kilometers that you've got up to a million geese nesting on. So once we know the extent of the colony, each year we have a permanent grid system. Every kilometer we have a 30 meter radius plot, which we go to and we travel in pairs. Again, this is for safety reasons. If something happens, you break through the ice and you're alone, things could turn South on you pretty quick. So yeah, working in pairs is a big safety thing, same as deterrence with bears or whatever, that's the way to go. So people go in pairs to these different nest plots that are a kilometer apart in a grid fashion within that area that we've mapped out.
Ray Alisauskas: We try to visit all those plots during nesting. And so once we get to a plot, it's 30 meter radius, we pretty well ... there's a tape and we map and measure all the nests that are there. We measure the eggs because with that many birds, as you approach the nest, the birds move away from the nest, and so we can't tell which bird belongs to which nest. You got to understand that there could be 100 nests on one of these plots. But we know we can tell Ross's and snow geese from the egg measurements. So for each nest, we've got these egg measurements that we can then go ahead and ID later on. And then we count the number of eggs, we get an idea of what the clutch size was for any year, how that varies by year. And then all of these plots are revisited after the birds hatch so we get nest success. So we know if the bird nested, what's the probability that it hatched at least one egg.
Ray Alisauskas: So those things really figure these measures of what's called fecundity figure really into how many goslings are going to be produced later on. So that's kind of a typical day with the snow and Ross's geese. Then I also mentioned we do other things like measure vegetation at each of these plots from year to year to try and understand the dynamics of that and what the effects of the geese are on the vegetation, and after the geese stop using the area, is there recovery of the vegetation and those kinds of things.
Ray Alisauskas: I mentioned we have a longterm Arctic mark recapture study on Arctic Fox and how their biology is affected by the local numbers of geese. We monitor lemming numbers. We monitor other species of birds on the area on these plots. We've got some site studies, conveniences that were there anyway studying these geese and when things get a bit slower after hatch in July by the geese, there's a good population of King eiders nesting. We started studying those in 1995 just because there were some conservation concerns about them, declines in population size continentally, and also very little known about their biology. So that's kind of a thumbnail sketch of the kind of things we do during the nesting studies.
Mike Brasher: I'm tempted to ask you questions about what you found in all those other studies, but I'm going to have to resist the urge to do that. But what you are doing, Ray, perhaps unbeknownst to you is you're giving me a whole list of things to have you back on the show for, so thanks for that.
Ray Alisauskas: Yeah. Well, whenever you ask a question, you get an answer that raises 20 more questions, it seems.
Mike Brasher: That is true.
Ray Alisauskas: In science and in journalism, I guess.
Mike Brasher: One of the things that I just want to point out for our listeners, I think most people that have an understanding of waterfowl will realize this, but snow geese, Ross's geese, these Arctic nesting geese like Canada geese that many people across the lower 48 or lower portion North America are familiar with, these nests are not concealed. They're not hidden in the grass the way ground nesting ducks or over-water nesting duck do. These are their colonial nesters. Their nest are fully exposed. You can see them from a great distance away.
Ray Alisauskas: Oh, that's right. Yeah. I mean, especially when there's hundreds per an area the size of a football field, for example, or even more. So yeah, I mean the place is just covered in geese, white geese, light geese, snow Ross's geese. We also have blue face snow geese there as well. The blues or eagle heads. But yeah, you look any direction when you're in the middle of that colony, there's just birds everywhere.
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Mike Brasher: Ray, you've mentioned productivity a couple of times already. The data that you collect feeds into annual estimates of that, and I just want to define that if you will. When we're talking about productivity, we're talking about the annual production of young geese in this case. Is that a simple, fair way to characterize that?
Ray Alisauskas: Yeah. Yeah, I think so. A good index of that is just the number of goslings that are alive per number of adults that are alive. It's like a fertility rate. Same in human populations. How many kids does this woman have over her lifetime, or in the case of punctuated breeders like geese during a nesting season. So that's a convenient way. And that kind of leads us to the banding work, even though the banding studies are designed to mark birds and just let them go to learn other things, you also get productivity information during the banding.
Ray Alisauskas: Obviously the activity of day-to-day would be that you fly around in a helicopter with your banding crew and the pilot of course, and you try and find reasonably sized groups of birds. You don't want them too large because you want to minimize the amount of time that you're handling them. And basically once you spot a flock, maybe two or three hundred birds, some of these flocks are thousands, but you want to avoid catching those. And then these productive flocks will have adults and that year's number of goslings that are associated with those adults who are the moms and the dads with their kids because they stick together.
Ray Alisauskas: And then as the helicopter crew approaches, they bunch up, the aircraft lands, the banding crew gets out, pilot takes off, banding crew quickly sets up a corral-type net, funnel-type net with two wings, for example, and they back away, and then the helicopter will just herd those birds gently, slowly into the corral net and it's closed off. And then you just process the birds. You record the age, the sex. You have to evert the cloaca to see if there's a penis, or it's just a black spot present on the female geese and a clear penis on the males. And so you have to pop those and find out the sex of the adults and the young, and you can do it with goslings as well. And we've got the age structure as well. And then we record all all that, records the band number and let them go. And you have to ...
Ray Alisauskas: While you can't let them go immediately, you have to let them go together. So they have to be held, the adults and the young, if there's young and in the group and they're led off altogether so that the family stay cohesive. But right away if you do account of the young and the adults right away, you've got an index of productivity right there. You could have one adult per young ... So if catch 200 geese and there's 200 goslings with them, that's a one to one ratio. Some flocks will have no young if there's a non breeding flock. And some will have more, but you take the average or sum all those up during a year's or a season's banding operation, and that'll give you the age ratio at the time of banding, which is just before the young birds are able to fly. So that's, we call the fledgling or banding age ratio just before the birds fledge, which is the attainment of flight.
Mike Brasher: And so there's still a possibility that if some of the birds that you're catching, they're not ... are still a week or a couple of weeks away from flight, and there's a chance that adverse weather comes in, they could still succumb to those elements, right?
Ray Alisauskas: Oh yeah. Sure. I mean goslings can be actually very vulnerable to poor weather. By poor weather, I mean wet weather. They don't have fully formed feathers. There's downey young, and that's one of the reasons you want to avoid banding even if it's misty out or foggy. Certainly if it's raining, you shouldn't band because it'll induce mortality. So the banders avoid those kinds of conditions. Typically, a banding operation will be, the helicopters book for 10 days, but some years you lose half of that or even most of those days to bad weather, and that's kind of very frustrating. But you can't fight weather, so you just got to roll with it. But other years, some years, for example, Kyle Drake, I know he loves banding snow geese and Ross's geese, and he'll band up to 10, 12 thousand birds in a year, or he has done that without catching excessively large flocks, just medium properly sized flocks, but just lots of hard work through the day. So anyway, we do get these age ratios, but again, you have to avoid certain weather conditions.
Mike Brasher: What would be a ... You mentioned that if you corral a flock and there are no young birds, that's an index of obviously no productivity. And so that's not what you want to see from a young of the year perspective. What would be a ratio that you find and you say, wow, productivity ratio was good. What are we looking at there, three to one, young to adult?
Ray Alisauskas: Well, at that time of year, one to one is even pretty good. That means each pair of geese produced two goslings. I mean they lay more eggs than that, but between a hutch which is about six weeks before the banding operations and fledging, which is maybe a week or so after the banding operation, there's this probability called gosling survival. I mean you can have the best nesting effort, but if gosling survival is zero, you're still going to end up with zero young at the time of banding. People often ask me, how's the nesting effort been? Well, it can be good, but it doesn't mean you'll have lots of young. The bottom line is what you're seeing at banding in terms of the number of goslings that are still alive at that time.
Ray Alisauskas: And then that age ratio at banding is very tightly linked to what we see in the fall certainly in Saskatchewan. The correlation is super high. So if it's high at banding, it's going to be higher here in Saskatchewan by September, October as those birds come down and move through. It's lower than it is in the Arctic because there's a better mortality. The adults tend to not die very much at all. But there's some gosling mortality after banding and before they leave the Arctic on their migration. And then there are some during migration from the Arctic down to the prairies here in Canada.
Mike Brasher: Well, Ray, one of the questions that every year, as you've mentioned already, hunters want to know is what's the productivity like this year? Because it varies dramatically from year to year and probably even from colony to colony. So it's obviously going to be difficult to give a terribly accurate answer to this question, but I have to ask it. What have you heard ... We're recording this in early November, so quite a bit of time has passed and some of the early indices of productivity were out, but what did you see this year with respect to productivity? What do you think hunters might expect? And what have you learned on the staging ground since some of these productivity measures were developed?
Ray Alisauskas: Okay. Well, I mean for this year, I only know for certain the banding age ratios were very poor in the central Arctic, almost no young, probably 10% young. So for every nine adults there was maybe one young, instead of nine adults per ... sorry, nine young per each nine adults. So it certainly wasn't a one to one. It was like nine to one in favor of adults. So very poor in a sense of Arctic. Now, that's not the case. You preface your question with different colonies. On Baffin Island, I understand the productivity was higher. Those birds tend to go through Eastern Saskatchewan and Manitoba, for example, in Canada, and tend to spend more time in Mississippi flyway than in the central flyway. So I'm expecting that those Baffin Island birds did better than the central Arctic birds due to differences in weather and so on.
Ray Alisauskas: So I'm expecting the Mississippi flyway will see slightly higher age ratios than farther West in the central flyway where most of the central Arctic birds used to fly through, although more and more of these birds are heading East during winter. So things are always changing with these birds.
Mike Brasher: It's interesting, Ray, that you've mentioned that about Baffin Island. I was in Southern Manitoba in early October and we came across one flock of snow geese. Granted this is one flock in one location, but there were quite a few young birds in that flock. We did not do any kind of count, but if I had to guess, I would probably say it was close to ... I don't know if it would have gotten to a one to one ratio, probably not. I just remember after having read some of your earlier emails about a low productivity at some of the colonies, I was surprised to see a number of juveniles in that flock. But again, that's just one observation, one flock.
Ray Alisauskas: Well, that's right. Yeah. Well, even here in Saskatchewan, if you go far enough East, you would have seen a higher age ratio. But then in the Western part of the province where the central Arctic birds come through, it was probably 10% young, like nine to one. Yeah. And then these birds from different regions mix. I mean if they all do poorly, they'll be poor everywhere. But if you have this sort of what's called a heterogeneity or just differences in the age ratios from these different colonies, what you end up seeing depends on how big those relative sizes of those colonies are and how well they mixed together through migration and so on. It's a bit of a complicated game but pretty low in the West for these mid-continent birds. Probably higher in the East for these mid-continent birds. So lower in the central, higher in the Mississippi.
Ray Alisauskas: Although as I said, more and more of these birds are heading to places like Arkansas for the winter where they mix up and probably any of those regional differences cut it down the middle. The differences will mix in and you get something in the middle, probably reasonable age ratios.
Mike Brasher: Any word out of Wrangel Island?
Ray Alisauskas: I have not talked to Vazzily for some time, and I don't know what the situation there is. You might have to get them on your show someday.
Mike Brasher: That would be interesting. A native Mississippian talking to a Russian, we might have to have a translator for that. Might have to have you back on, Ray, to do that.
Ray Alisauskas: Oh, I don't speak much Russian.
Mike Brasher: No. Okay. I thought you were going to say I don't speak Mississippi.
Ray Alisauskas: That I can get by on. Yeah.
Mike Brasher: That's right. You have spent some time down here. Okay, Ray. Well, what about any surveys or observations from the prairies that you might have made since some of the banding work has occurred. Do you have any information from that, either personal anecdotes or any other formal surveys that are conducted?
Ray Alisauskas: Yeah. Well, we do a fall age ratio as well as the birds are moving through Saskatchewan. Of course, a lot of the mid-continent does move through Saskatchewan. So I deal with these age ratio accounts through September and October. And as we discussed, on the West side, there's very few young per adult, whereas the farther East you go, that age ratio does increase. And so there's a number of blue birds farther East. So anywhere you're going to see blue birds, you probably see higher age ratios than you would farther to the West. That's just the general thumb ... The data's still in the books and we're just entering it. But that's the general impression I had. And the answer is, well, it depends on where you're hunting or where you're looking.
Mike Brasher: I have to ask you also, Ray, I don't know that I ever have inquired with you on this. Do you get out and hunt snow geese very much in Saskatchewan?
Ray Alisauskas: Yeah. Not as much as I used to. I love snow geese. I love to watch them. I love to study them. I love to listen to them and I love eating them, and that's kind of what I focus on. And there's a bunch of great recipes Hank Shaw has done. I think he's done work with DU, but I'm not trying to plug the guy. But I mean, one of the important things to me about hunting is the eating part and just the solitude and being out with your dog, no people around if that's possible. But that's just me. Other people love the camaraderie of hunting in a group and so on. But the eating part to me is pretty important. So yeah, I like all aspects of snow geese, and yeah, they're pretty amazing birds.
Mike Brasher: Yeah. Well, I'm of like-mind on all those aspects of waterfowl hunting from being out in the field to actually bringing the bird home, processing it and seeing that actually get to the table and then enjoying it. Ray, I want to thank you again for sharing your time, sharing your expertise like we do with all of our guests on this show that are bringing good scientific information to our audience. Your career has been incredibly valuable for advancing our understanding of waterfowl ecology, waterfowl conservation and the management of that resource to ensure its sustainability indefinitely through time. Personally as a colleague and as a friend, I really do thank you for taking your time to come on the show. We hope that we will be able to get you back on the show or maybe even get you in studio if you ever find your way back down here to Memphis. So thank you, Ray. Any final words for the audience?
Ray Alisauskas: Well, it's been my pleasure, Mike. But I just want to remind ... I assume most of the people listening to these podcast are hunters, and I would encourage any hunter that shoots a bird with a band on it, please report that band because that kind of information is valuable more than you can imagine to understand what's driving these bird populations. And thanks to those who do and thanks to those that will.
Mike Brasher: Absolutely. Thank you, Ray.
Ray Alisauskas: My pleasure.
Mike Brasher: Special thanks goes out to our very distinguished guest, one of the world's foremost experts in snow goose ecology, Dr. Ray Alisauskas: We also thank our producer, Clay Baird, for the great job that he does, and most importantly we thank you, the listeners. We thank you for your time, for your passion and your commitment to wetlands and waterfowl conservation.
Clay Baird: Thank you for listening to this episode of the DU podcast. Be sure to rate, review and subscribe to the show and visit www.ducks.org/DUpodcast for resources based on today's topics, as well as access to more episodes. Opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect those of Ducks Unlimited. Until next time, stay tuned to the ducks.