Science Spotlight

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  • October 5, 2018

Panoramic view of dry grassland and blue sky.
Panorama of Summer Lake

Smiling woman wearing green USGS hat and shirt holding collared goose
USGS employee holding goose

Wetland with tule grass in foreground and mountains in background.
Summer Lake

Waterway with mountains in background
Summer Lake

Woman in green shirt and pants wading thigh-deep in water holding net and surrounded by geese
Melanie in the water retrieving geese

partial view of white pickup truck with face in sideview mirror. Grassland and mountain in background
Melanie in sideview mirror

Woman wearing green long sleeved shirt, glasses, and braids holding collar around neck of goose held by person wearing a brown jacket.
Fitting the collar

Person wearing brown sweatshirt holding collared goose. Goose has bill around person's index finger.
A finger nibble

Every September, California Department of Fish and Wildlife waterfowl biologist Melanie Weaver sets off on an unusual business trip. She packs up a trailer with huge nets, wire, rockets, crates and a number of VHF collars. She makes the seven-hour drive to Summer Lake, in southern Oregon’s high desert country, and settles in for a waterfowl capture project of indeterminate length. Her quarry is Anser alibifrons elgasi — the Tule white-fronted goose. Her goal is to capture, collar and release these huge, cackling birds until she runs out of collars.

Tule geese are one of two sub-species of white-fronted goose — also known colloquially as specklebelly geese, or “specs,” by hunters. The other sub-species of white-fronted goose, Pacific white-fronted, are plentiful, numbering about 700,000 in the Pacific flyway. But the Tule goose is far less common. Weaver estimates there are only 15,000 to 16,000 Tules.

Monitoring goose populations — particularly Tules — is a high priority for CDFW, as regulations are tied to the less numerous species. Currently, California regulations dictate that the hunting season for white-fronts on the west side of the Sacramento Valley closes on Dec. 21. This is to minimize harvest on Tule geese.

“They are right in the middle of a popular hunting area for Pacifics, so we have to be proactive,” Weaver explained. “If we saw the population decline significantly, we’d have to consider closing the season for all white-fronted geese. We want to avoid that.”

But why would the California Department of Fish and Wildlife be trapping geese north of the state line? One reason is logistics —Tule geese begin their southward trek from Alaska in mid-August or thereabouts. They’re heading for the Sacramento Valley, and Summer Lake Wildlife Area is a major stop over along the migration route. As they move further south into California, Tule geese mix with their more common cousins, the Pacifics. “We’ve tried to capture them in and around the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex before, and we end up expending a lot of effort just for a handful of Tules caught,” Weaver explained. “So the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife suggested moving our capture effort to the Summer Lake Wildlife Area. It’s largely only Tule geese coming through this time of year.”

And that’s the other reason — this partnership between the waterfowl programs from neighboring states illustrates the importance and strength of the Pacific Flyway. Alaska, Canada, Washington, Oregon and California all have a stake in ensuring the conservation of the species that traverse their lands and use their waters. ODFW doesn’t just offer up their land as a banding site. They also provide lodging for Weaver, typically split the cost of the radio collars, and supply labor for the duration of the project, no matter how long it takes.

Weaver’s ODFW counterpart, waterfowl biologist Brandon Reishus, was in it for the long haul right alongside Weaver. On a chilly Monday morning in mid-September, only just a week after they laid out the nets, they hit the jackpot. On that particular day, Reishus was crouched in the blind, using a scope to scan for incoming flocks, while Weaver sat nearby in a pickup truck. They waited and watched for a few hours, keeping in touch by radio, before Reishus spotted his opportunity. After a quick heads up to his Californian counterpart, the Oregon biologist pressed the detonation button, launching the pre-set rockets a quarter mile away. In the blink of an eye, the 60-foot-long net sailed over the unsuspecting birds as they blissfully churned up grit from the water. Both biologists then jumped into the truck and raced to the site, where they untangled the geese and put them into crates for transport to the Summer Lake Wildlife Area shop. The final count on this particular morning was 14 birds; a small number was all that was needed to complete the marking effort for this year as an earlier capture resulted in 44 birds.

The geese were given a little time to settle down before the processing began. Each bird was sexed and the bills measured. Although Weaver and Reishus can typically identify their catch just by the size and color (Tules are larger and darker than Pacifics), scientific measurements are essential for definitive identification.

The birds were also weighed before they were banded and collared. The collars will enable the biologists to obtain a population estimate on the wintering grounds, using a mark resight method. This and other data obtained from the bands will be used to make future management recommendations.

In the early afternoon, Weaver and Reishus drove back to the exact spot where the net was deployed just hours earlier. On the count of three, all the crates were opened at the same time, and the geese noisily rushed out, spreading their wings and re-forming their flock as they raced away.

As Weaver and Reishus affixed the last of the VHF collars on this particular Monday, they marveled at the unusually early conclusion of this years’ trapping effort. Sometimes it takes a full two weeks to use up their supply of collars. Once again, the team effort paid off. And even as they packed up their equipment from the Summer Lake Wildlife Area and prepared to head their separate ways, they were making plans to meet up again in a week, for a Pacific Flyway Study Committee meeting in Arizona.

“It’s such a valuable partnership,” Weaver said. “We look at the big picture, and we all work on solutions together.”
 
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CDFW Photos. Top Photo: weighing a goose.

Categories: Wildlife Research
  • August 15, 2017

The latest issue of California Fish and Game, CDFW’s scientific journal, is now available online. This century-old quarterly journal contains peer-reviewed scientific literature that explores and advances the conservation and understanding of California’s flora and fauna.

The endangered salt marsh harvest mouse (Reithrodontomys raviventris) graces the cover of California Fish and Game, Volume 103, Issue I. Researchers ventured into the pickleweed to study the tiny mouse, which is endemic to the marshes surrounding the San Francisco Estuary Bay and its tributaries. The mice were fitted with tiny radiotelemetry collars and tracked for three years. Researchers documented some curious behavior in the resulting paper, “Potential evidence of communal nesting, mate guarding, or biparental care.” The accompanying photos provide a fascinating glimpse into an active nest.

Another paper, “Documentation of mountain lion occurrence and reproduction in the Sacramento Valley of California,” explores the potential for mountain lions to exist in fragmented habitats if there is adequate connectivity with larger blocks of suitable habitat and sufficient prey. The study used camera traps to document populations of mountain lions in the Sacramento Valley’s Butte Sink, which is made up of relic riparian habitats interspersed with managed wetlands. The photos show healthy mountain lions moving through habitat that has long been considered unsuitable due to extensive agricultural and urban development.

The article, “Mussels of the Upper Klamath River, Oregon and California,” reports on sampling efforts that expand existing baseline population data on freshwater mussels in the Upper Klamath River. The sampling efforts may ultimately assist with protection, mitigation and enhancement efforts for large bi-valve species.

The final paper provides insights into the benefits deer and elk derive from licking mineral rocks. Researchers took samples of “lick sites” that were used by California black-tail deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) and Roosevelt elk (Cervus canadensis roosevelti) in the Klamath Mountains, Siskiyou County. After performing a detailed analysis of the elemental content of each lick site, the researchers concluded that each lick site offers a different smorgasbord of minerals, and in varying concentrations. The study’s objective is to begin identifying, classifying, and analyzing important mineral lick sites to benefit future ungulate management efforts.

As it has for the past 103 years, California Fish and Game continues to publish high-quality, peer-reviewed science that contributes to the understanding and conservation of California’s wildlife. We look forward to witnessing the contributions of the next installment.

Download the link opens in new windowentire Winter Issue 103 (PDF) in high resolution, or browse individual articles in low resolution.

Categories: California Fish and Game Journal, Wildlife Research