Why Do We Band Ducks?

The numbered band on this duck will allow biologists to track this duck and provide valuable information on such things as migration routes and mortality.

The numbered band on this duck will allow biologists to track this duck and provide valuable information on such things as migration routes and mortality.

Temperatures in the single digits coupled with winds in the double digits put the windchill at the other side of zero. You know that expression, “The weather’s great…If you are a duck” certainly was in play this day.

While I hid underneath multiple layers of wool, polypropylene and down; out in the surf, black ducks were bobbing up and down with the whitecaps, enjoying the relative warmth of the slushy water.

These black ducks were attracted inside the funneled fencing looking for corn. Biologists set the traps when the weather is cold and other food sources are covered in ice and snow.

These black ducks were attracted inside the funneled fencing looking for corn. Biologists set the traps when the weather is cold and other food sources are covered in ice and snow.

As winter tightens its grip, food for ducks becomes scarce, covered under blankets of snow and ice. Biologists use winter’s hold to their advantage, luring ducks into funneled, fenced enclosures with whole kernel corn in order to band them and learn more about them.

In Maine, biologists with Maine Fish and Wildlife and US Fish and Wildlife aim to band about 500 black ducks each season. Banding and the subsequent reporting of bands allows biologists to monitor survival, harvest rates, movements and reproductive rates.

Returns on banding show that the black duck population appears to be stable in their core area after a period of decline. At the periphery of their range the population is not as stable. Much of the original decline was traced to the loss of breeding grounds and wintering habitat. Black ducks are ground nesters that breed in salt marshes, beaver flowages, wetlands and boreal forests.

Once inside the fencing, the ducks are led into a smaller crate, and they are then removed in order to place a band on their leg.

Once inside the fencing, the ducks are led into a smaller crate, and they are then removed in order to place a band on their leg.

Black ducks banded in Maine have been reported as far south as Maryland, by contrast, mallard ducks banded in Maine have been found as far west as the great lakes and even Kansas, and as far south as South Carolina.

On this day, I accompanied IFW wildlife biologist Kelsey Sullivan, who oversees the department’s waterfowl banding

program. Along with volunteer Houston Cady, the duo banded nearly 50 black ducks. As they band, they record the sex of the bird, the species, and whether it is an adult or was born this past summer.

The birds were about equally split between adults and juveniles, and we did band one mallard along with the black ducks. Interestingly, we also banded a mallard/black duck hybrid, which seem to be more common in other states further south.

Once all the ducks are banded, they are released back into the wild.

Once all the ducks are banded, they are released back into the wild.

We visited three different sites with traps… all had birds, some more than others. Before setting the traps, Kelsey will spread corn for several days to get birds accustomed to coming to the spot. He chose his spots carefully, southerly facing for sun, and near running water, usually a small brook. The two factors together seem to be attractive to ducks.

Whole kernel corn is placed leading up to the enclosure as well as inside in order to attract the ducks.

Whole kernel corn is placed leading up to the enclosure as well as inside in order to attract the ducks.

After about a week, Kelsey set the fencing trap to coincide with the high lunar tides. The ducks had become quite comfortable with the fencing and food, and when we came the next morning, there were over a dozen ducks in each trap, ready to be banded and added to Maine’s contribution to the interstate and Canadian waterfowl banding program.

The ducks are led into this small enclosure before they are removed to be banded.

The ducks are led into this small enclosure before they are removed to be banded.

Why Do You Separate Eggs In The Hatchery?

Wonka's Egg-Dicator

Wonka’s Egg-Dicator

Willie Wonka, you may remember, possessed an Egg-dicator at his chocolate factory. The machine could magically tell the difference between a good egg, and a bad egg.

Most of Wonka’s golden eggs were good, and shipped throughout the world for Easter. Bad eggs were immediately trashed through a chute. Veruca Salt, one of Wonka’s golden-ticketed guests, inadvertently stood on the Egg-dicator, was deemed rotten and shipped out the garbage chute, following the same fate as other rotten eggs.

Seem farfetched?  Well, consider the fact that fiction becomes reality each fall in the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife hatcheries as IFW hatchery staff use an “egg-dicator” to sort through the salmon, trout and togue eggs, separating the good eggs from the bad eggs.

This container holds fertilized brook trout eggs that have eyed up. The white eggs are dead, and will be removed.

This container holds fertilized brook trout eggs that have eyed up. The white eggs are dead, and will be removed.

You see, not every trout or salmon egg is productive. Some are old, some are deformed, some may not get fertilized, but the bottom line is that the rotten eggs need to be discarded. If they aren’t, they become a host for disease, and can kill other viable eggs in the hatchery.

An earlier post showed how IFW hatchery fish culturists fertilize fish eggs. Once fertilized, the eggs are brought to the hatchery, where, guess what?, they hatch. It’s not immediate, it takes several weeks. During that time, bad eggs are discarded to ensure the viability of the good eggs.

It used to be done by hand, but nowadays, the IFW rents a machine that separates the good from the bad. Eggs are placed in a bin, funneled to a spinning wheel that sucks up the eggs where they are eyed by a light. If the light is blocked, a blast of water kicks the egg out and down the garbage chute, while the good eggs continue through until they are deposited in a basket and then moved to hatchery trays and pools.

Millions of trout, salmon and togue eggs are stored in these containers until they are near hatching.

Millions of trout, salmon and togue eggs are stored in these containers until they are near hatching.

Hatchery staff processed over 200,000 brook trout eggs today, with about 25% of the eggs discarded. While it may seem like a lot, it’s a better percentage than the wild, where only about 2 percent of the eggs will hatch.

The 200,000 eggs are just a portion of the over 1.5 million eggs that are brought to the Governor Hill Hatchery each year. Over the winter, while some eggs will be discarded, most will hatch. These fish will stay at Governor Hill for a while, then some will be brought to the Grand Lake Stream Hatchery and the Emden Rearing station. There these fish will remain until they are stocked throughout the state.

The hatchery version of the Egg-dicator. All eggs are deposited into the bin, sorted by an electric eye, then deposited into a "good" container and a "trash" container.

The hatchery version of the Egg-dicator. All eggs are deposited into the bin, sorted by an electric eye, then deposited into a “good” container and a “trash” container.

While Wonka’s golden eggs were shipped all over the world, Maine’s hatchery-raised brook trout stay within Maine. Both, however, always seem to bring smiles those who hold them.

Looking for a list of stocked waters in Maine? Please visit the department’s website at http://www.maine.gov/ifw/fishing/reports/stocking/stocking.htm.

Once sorted, eggs will be placed in trays and set in these large green tanks where they will hatch.

Once sorted, eggs will be placed in trays and set in these large green tanks where they will hatch.

How Do IFW Hatcheries Help Salmon Spawn?

It’s probably not the image you have in your head when you think of salmon spawning, for it is not the majestic leap from pool to pool as a salmon migrates upriver to spawn. 

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This male landlocked salmon was captured in a trap net and will be “milked” to fertilize salmon eggs.

Yet to landlocked salmon anglers who fish Maine’s waterways, this spawning run is critical to the success of landlocked salmon fishing throughout much of the state, even if they do get a little help from Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife hatchery staff.

Each year, IFW Hatchery staff trapnet landlocked salmon in order to gather eggs for the hatchery program. West Grand Lake is one of two locations in the state where salmon are collected, then “stripped” of their eggs and milt, and which ultimately are utilized to stock landlocked salmon throughout the state.

Landlocked salmon are native to Maine, but originally, they were only found in four watersheds in the state: the St. Croix which includes Grand Lake Stream in Washington County, the Union River including Green Lake in Hancock County, the Penobscot which includes Sebec Lake in Piscataquis County, and the Presumpscot, including Sebago Lake in Cumberland County.

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A gentle squeeze helps a ripe, female salmon release her eggs.

Landlocked salmon are the same species, salmo salar, as atlantic salmon. As many of you know, the urge to spawn in these fish is extremely strong, and they will go to great lengths to do so.

However, in most lakes and ponds in Maine, there isn’t suitable spawning habitat in order to sustain these fisheries. While the Department and others place a premium on securing and protecting habitat such as Grand Lake Stream, factors such as dams and development limit the amount of spawning habitat available to sustain many coldwater fisheries throughout the state.

That’s why each year in November, a crew of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife personnel gather on West Grand Lake to assist these salmon in spawning.

Like so many other Salmon that migrate to spawning grounds, these landlocked salmon are blocked by a dam. Hatchery staff place a trapnet near the dam where they collect salmon and then place them in pens until they are ripe for spawning.  

A male salmon's milt is released into a bowl fertilizing salmon eggs.

A male salmon’s milt is released into a bowl fertilizing salmon eggs.

Once the females are “ripe”, a team of state fish culturists assist these salmon in the spawning.

Female salmon are “stripped” of their eggs by massaging and manipulating the fish’s belly, dropping her golden orange eggs into a large plastic bowl. A male salmon is “stripped” of its bright, white milt into the same bowl.  The salmon are then released back into the lake.

The eggs and milt are mixed thoroughly in hopes of fertilizing all the eggs, and then allowed to water-harden before being secured for their journey to the hatchery where they will be placed in trays until they are hatched.

Culturists take only a portion of the pair’s fertilized eggs, then take a portion of the next pair’s, and so and so on in order to maintain as wide a genetic diversity as possible. In most years, well over 100 salmon will be stripped. A sample is also inspected and tested by the state’s fish pathologist to in order to protect against disease.

Once these fertilized eggs get to the hatchery, they are placed in egg trays, where the eggs will hatch out into fry later this winter. As they grow, they will be moved to larger tanks and eventually into other hatcheries throughout the state before they are released into the wild, starting at about 18 months from the time the adults spawned.

In the end, those migrating salmon that will have offspring that will populate waterways throughout the state.

A ripe West Grand Lake salmon.

A ripe West Grand Lake salmon.

A bowl full of fertilized salmon eggs. The white eggs are "dead" eggs that will be removed before they are brought to the hatchery.

A bowl full of fertilized salmon eggs. The white eggs are “dead” eggs that will be removed before they are brought to the hatchery.

Once the salmon have been stripped of their eggs or milt, they are released back into West Grand Lake.

Once the salmon have been stripped of their eggs or milt, they are released back into West Grand Lake.

Biologists gather data from dead deer to monitor health of the deer herd

While many of us are out hunting this deer season, Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife regional wildlife biologists are busy hunting for deer as well, knocking on doors and visiting meat lockers, chasing down biological data that will give the department a better glimpse of the health of Maine’s deer herd.

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These deer hang in a walk-in cooler at a deer processor in central Maine

You see, getting a closer look at several hundred dead deer can give a better picture of just how healthy the living are.

IFW Wildlife Biologist Keel Kemper, now in his 25th year with the department, has visited hundreds of meat lockers and handled thousands of dead deer in his career.

Kemper has his routine down to a science. Armed with a pair of calipers and an extremely sharp knife he examines over 500 deer in a season, gathering some key biological data for the department

The central Maine area is the state’s  most prolific deer area, a blend of  weather, geography and habitat that makes it Maine’s most productive deer region. On a normal day during deer season, Kemper will visit seven deer cutters and handle multiple deer at each one.  IFW biologists in regions conduct similar checks throughout the state.

Once at the cutters, Kemper will examine the tag attached to the deer that shows its weight and where it was shot.

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Examining molar teeth can quickly reveal whether the deer is a yearling deer, or a mature deer.

After that is recorded, Kemper takes his knife, and slices at the hinge of the mouth to expose the molar teeth.  A quick look at the number and condition of the teeth can show whether the deer is a yearling (born last spring) or older.

He will record that data, and if it is a yearling buck, he will measure the antler beam diameter with the calipers and count the number of points on the rack.

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Biologists will remove an adult tooth and later examine a cross section of the tooth to determine the age of a deer.

If it is older than a yearling (2 and a half and older), Kemper takes out his knife and quickly removes a tooth by slicing through the gums on the bottom jaw. The tooth is placed in a marked envelope so it can be aged later in the lab.

Kemper will also take note of the general condition of the deer, including fat content, and talk with the cutter to find out more about what they are seeing, how hunters are faring, and other related info. The deer cutters are an invaluable partner in that they provide both biological data with the deer, but also anecdotal evidence concerning hunter effort and participation.

In some cases, biologists will remove a gland to test for chronic wasting disease, and with freshly killed deer, may draw a blood sample to test for eastern equine encephalitis.

All this data is combined to give a clearer picture of the age structure and health of the deer herd, and gives the department the tools they need to manage the deer population.