The whistling sound of beating wings moves through the forest as a common goldeneye duck lands in a nest box mounted to the side of a tree near the Moose Creek Dam in North Pole, Alaska. Focused on laying its eggs within the cozy confines of this manmade wooden structure, the bird is unaware of its vital role in a unique scientific study.
Through a cooperative effort between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Region, the team recently concluded its 25th summer of using nest boxes to learn about 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 at the federally owned property.
Scientists use information collected from the field research to assess the short-term effects of weather, like a late spring breakup or rainy summer, on the birds’ breeding productivity along with determining how climate change influences the species. It also gives biologists the chance to evaluate how the red squirrel and pine marten, common predators of the goldeneye, impact the population, according to Eric Taylor, Supervisory Wildlife Biologist in the Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska Region’s Migratory Bird Program.
Through an analysis of the long-term data-set, scientists discovered that common goldeneye hens now initiate egg laying 14 days earlier than when the study began in 1997, likely indicating the effects of a warming climate in Alaska.
“Such results are simply not possible unless one has the ability to evaluate a continuous data stream for a long time period,” Taylor said.
For this endeavor to be successful, it takes a talented team of field researchers to gather the information needed to expand the scientific knowledge base. College students are ideal candidates for this work 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 collaborated with USACE, who has provided funding to support four graduate students and over 40 undergraduate students attending universities and colleges in the U.S., Germany and Japan,” Taylor said.
This year’s research team was composed of two scholars from Mississippi State University – Riley Porter, graduate student, and George Williams, undergraduate student.
“My experience on the goldeneye project has been incredible, 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 previously, Williams was looking for an opportunity to return to the Last Frontier while working in a field he loves.
“My reason for studying wildlife biology stems from my experiences outdoors in Alaska,” he said. “Because of this, my goal has been to return to work with Alaskan wildlife. This project presented me with that opportunity, and I have relished my time up here.”
Working with officials for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and USACE park rangers at the Chena Project, the students track bird species that use the nest boxes and tag chicks that hatch. The students must monitor and time their visits to the boxes to ensure they tag and catalog each chick before they leave the nest.
When the eggs hatch, there is only about a 24-hour window to attach a small metal web tag to each duckling before they leap out of the box and head for the nearest water body, according to Kerwin.
“The field work for this project is very demanding, but it teaches very quickly what it will take to make it in this profession,” Porter said. “We are working 12-to-15 hours a day most days, seven days a week. However, the reward is being able to handle hundreds of ducks and even more ducklings.”
Besides contending with the long hours required to perform their duties, the students found creative ways to safely catch the birds, preventing injury to both themselves and the ducks.
“Being able to handle the same birds continuously over two months shows you just how unique individual birds are,” Williams said. “After a while, we discovered that each bird has its own personality.”
For skittish birds, the team would play recorded robin calls to mask sounds made by walking across dry leaves carrying an extension ladder so incubating hens would stay in the nest box and allow Porter and Williams to catch them. Also, the team had lots of extra clothes to change into after encounters with ducks that would defecate as a means of defense. However, most hens were easy to catch and handle when they were measured, weighed and banded or tagged.
“Common goldeneyes are an incredible species,” Porter said. “Although these birds are not in harm’s way, that doesn’t mean they are not a beautiful bird to study. Goldeneyes are known for the male’s elaborate and complex mating display that consists of up to 14 different movements that portray the bird’s superiority over other suitors.”
While conducting field work, the project team often meets community members who notice the boxes and see marked waterfowl.
“Public outreach has truly been one of the most rewarding and fun aspects of this project,” Taylor said. “Talking to a family with youngsters about ‘ducks who nest in boxes’ or ducks with ‘numbers on their eggs’ and the excitement of seeing day-old ducklings are experiences that are invaluable and may just inspire that next generation of naturalists and conservationists.”
This year, researchers found that adult goldeneye ducks occupied 25 out of 26 nest boxes on USACE land and documented 228 ducklings that hatched from these shelters, a record amount for the program.
“Other cavity nesting birds also use the boxes, such as boreal owls, bufflehead ducks and common mergansers,” Kerwin said.
But, this is the first year that the team has spotted a Barrow’s goldeneye duck using a nest box. Typically, this species of seabird resides in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska.
“We are not sure how it ended up here (in the interior of the state), or if there are physical changes within the environment that are more appealing, but we were happy to have her there and give her a great nesting experience,” Porter said.
The project began in 1993 when students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Student Chapter of The Wildlife Society received a grant from Ducks Unlimited to construct and install 150 boxes along the upper Chena River in the local state recreation area. In 1997, the program expanded to the Chena River Lakes Flood Control Project, which now houses an additional 26 boxes for the birds.
“The success of the common goldeneye project is the result of collaboration, support, enthusiasm and genuine interest from project leaders, park rangers, facility professionals and other personnel at the Chena Project,” Taylor said. “The Corps has provided funding, logistical support, field assistance and even built 100s of nest boxes for this project for over 20-plus years.”
After exposure to the harsh interior climate, the boxes begin to decay and must be replaced by newer versions which USACE assists to create and install.
Since the program began, the Fish and Wildlife Service has also collaborated 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 USFWS has been a fun and exciting experience,” Kerwin said. “Both parties have learned a lot from each other throughout the years.”
After graduating from college, students who worked on the project have gone on to secure jobs in wildlife biology with federal agencies across the United States, including USACE, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and the U.S. Forest Service and with industry, private companies, and conservation groups.
The Chena Project is the northernmost flood risk mitigation project operated by USACE. Moose Creek Dam and associated features reduce flooding in the interior Alaskan city of Fairbanks while the project’s nearly 20,000 acres of public land offer visitors a myriad of recreational opportunities.