Banding together

I’ve always been intrigued by the process of banding waterfowl.

In college, I was surrounded with natural resources majors, some of which had the chance to band birds as part of their coursework. That made me jealous.

As a hunter, I just couldn’t get my head around what it would be like to interact with a large number of live birds.

I’ve spent the decade since graduation hoping for the opportunity to give myself that experience.

So when I saw a Facebook post from the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association this past July asking for volunteers to help with bird banding, I immediately jumped on the opportunity.

After a quick phone call, my dad was onboard as well. He didn’t need much convincing. After all, the banding was taking place at Collins Marsh in nearby Manitowoc County, a place that holds many fond memories for both of us.

Some of my earliest recollections of goose hunting are from trips with my dad to Collins long before I could even sign-up for a hunter’s safety course. It’s where I shot my first goose and spent hours of quality time with my grandpa.

Though our morning of volunteering was weeks away, I was already excited. I thought about it daily. A certain anticipation comes with waiting for a new experience that you know you’re going to love.

For those who don’t know, scientists put metal bands on the legs of certain types of birds to study things like migration patterns, population sizes, average lifespans, and harvest rates. This information is crucial in helping to successfully manage duck populations.

If a hunter shoots a banded bird, they can fill out a brief form that provides biologists with the information they need to complete their study on that particular animal. In return, the hunter receives information about where and when the bird was banded.

My alarm went off a little before 3 a.m. on August 11. We were to meet at the Department of Natural Resources’ shop in Collins at 4:15. I picked up my dad and we made the 40-minute drive northwest.

When we arrived, we met up with Steve Easterly, a DNR Wildlife Biologist. He was milling about the large, well-lit garage chipping away at his list of morning chores. A coffee machine sprung to life on an impromptu desk on the right side of the building as I inspected the back of the black UTV that sat in the center of the shop. It contained dowels filled with the metal bands that would be placed on the birds we tagged.

I paused to think about the significance of those metallic rings. I’ve never shot a banded bird, but I’ve been lucky enough to be part of a few hunting parties that have. Those moments were the end of the journey for those particular birds. Now, I got to be part of the beginning.

Once the other six volunteers showed up, Steve explained just how awe-inspiring some of those stories could be. He noted that ducks banded in Collins have been recovered in every North American flyway and called attention to two particular mallards. One was a drake recovered in Alaska, a relative stone’s throw from the Bering Sea, a whopping 11 years after it was banded. The other was a hen found all the way in Iceland.

From 1966-2020, 16,569 ducks banded in Collins had been recovered. Now, it was our turn to play a small role in that legacy.

Steve then transitioned into a rundown of how the morning’s events would play out. The goal was to band mallards and wood ducks. The team in Collins was about halfway to their mallard quota and struggling to get their desired amount of woodies.

We were going to head into the refuge, a part of the property my dad and I had never been on, and sit in a blind about 80 yards from a pile of corn that was placed near a series of net cannons. Cob corn is preferred to loose kernels because it forces the birds to work a little harder to feed, keeping them in their desired location for a longer period of time.

When the time was right, one of the assistants would press a button that would launch the net out of the cannons. There would not be a warning, just a sudden explosion and a cloud of smoke.

The cannons are charged with, what amounts to, modified shotgun shells. Instead of a primer, the shells are ignited by electric wicks that begin to burn as soon as the button is pressed. When the burning wick meets the powder, the ensuing explosion propels the net out of the barrels of the cannons and over the top of the unsuspecting ducks.

Once that happened, we were to calmly, but quickly, file out of the blind and surround the net in an effort to keep the birds from escaping. When we were in position, we would be given additional instructions.

With our briefing out of the way, we loaded into a hay wagon and headed down to the blind. A full moon glowing orange as a pumpkin provided light as we disembarked from the wagon and quietly advanced toward our hiding spot.

The elevated metal blind was roughly 20 feet long and five feet wide. Bench seats formed an “L” shape around two sides of the structure. A mesh screen allowed us to observe the scene in front of us (once the sun came up) without being detected by the feeding ducks. My dad and I took up our seats. on the far corner of the blind right in the joint of the L.

Though it was still dark, it was immediately evident the marsh in front of us held a significant amount of life. Hen mallards let out their quacks as wood ducks whistled and the raspy calls of blue-winged teal rang out. It was impossible to tell how many ducks were in our area, but there was no doubt it was a lot.

It was fascinating to listen to the birds communicate with one another. As any hunter worth their salt will tell you, in order to successfully call ducks you first must listen and take note of how they speak. I’ve spent a lot of time hearing what ducks have to say. But I still used this opportunity to try and get a better grip on their languages.

The dialects can sound so similar, but each type of call a duck makes is trying to communicate a different message. Some calls mean “I’m here!” Others mean “get away!” A series of “chuckles” often indicates the presence of food. While belting out a highball says “come back!”

All of these messages were present as the symphony of birds crescendoed and dawn approached.

Daylight began to break and the yellow ears of corn became visible. I started to detect motion in and around the bait pile. The ducks looked like little more than ants marching about.

The tip of the sun started to crest the horizon and the picture became much clearer. The bait pile was about 15 yards from the edge of the water where hundreds of ducks were swimming.

“My God,” the volunteer sitting to my left said under his breath. “Just phenomenal.”

It was sight to behold. As the first ducks made their way onshore and headed toward the bait pile, they were replaced by double the amount of birds flying in to join the floating community.

On the far left of the blind sat Kyle, one of the assistants. He was the one in charge of pulling the proverbial trigger that would launch the net. He sat on five-gallon bucket with a padded seat on top.

Once there was enough light, he grabbed his binoculars and peeked out of the edge of the blind to survey the landscape. He repeated this process every couple of minutes.

By now, the sun had almost fully risen. We had been in the blind for nearly an hour. There appeared to be roughly 100 ducks in the bait pile. Surely, the cannon shot was imminent.

A sudden noise came from in front of us as a flock of about 30 mallards got up off the bait pile and flew off into the distance. It sounded like a helicopter achieving flight.

“Well this can’t be good,” I thought to myself.

A few minutes later, another medium-sized flock departed the feeding area.

Ugh.

A short while later, I was startled by what sounded like a jet coming in for a landing. It turned out to be a huge flock of blackbirds that were now standing in the middle of the corn.

For the next few minutes, the blackbird flock danced in and out of the bait. Getting up, circling, and sitting back down. It was really cramping our style.

Then came the boisterous bellows of a flock of sandhill cranes. Would this scare the feeding ducks? I was growing concerned that we might not get a shot off — a possibility I hadn’t even considered in the lead-up to this day.

Geese began flying as we approached the 90-minute mark since entering the blind. The blackbirds continued to buzz around. A train came through the nearby town with its horn blaring. It was a mess.

All the while I continued to keep an eye on Kyle.

Eventually, there was a brief moment of relative solitude. I saw Kyle reach for the control panel and press the button. A high-pitched ringing started, kind of like in movie scenes where everything is moving in slow motion after an explosion.

Seconds later, KABOOM.

The cannons erupted and the net fell to the ground as quickly as it went up into the sky. As I began my descent of the stairs in back of the blind, I could make out some movement in the net. At the very least, we were going to have some birds to band. I was happy about that.

My dad and I, along with the rest of the volunteers encircled the net, just as instructed. I inspected our catch as Steve and the rest of the volunteers who were back at the shop made their way to us.

Our haul included a lot of mallards along with a smattering of wood ducks.

As we waited, Kyle explained why the shot was delayed. After they finished dining, one of the first groups of mallards to enter the bait pile set up shop right in front of the cannons. Hitting the button while the birds were in that spot likely would have injured or killed them. So he had to wait until they moved.

Steve and the support team rolled up. The cohort was a mix of hunters, students, and people who just like ducks.

We began to put on gloves and masks to protect us against avian flu.

The plan was to set up a sort of bucket brigade. The trained assistants would fish the ducks out from under the net, we would take them over to the line of banders. The banders would call out the type of duck they had (species, sex, mature/immature, etc.) and Steve would give them a corresponding band.

The metal ring was crimped onto the bird’s leg and the duck would be released to fly another day. Lather, rinse, repeat, until the net was empty.

I quickly received my first duck, an immature drake mallard. I could feel his heart racing as I walked him over to the banding line.

I’ve handled many ducks in my day, but all of them were dead. It was awesome to feel the power of a live, wild bird.

The ducks had to be handled authoritatively, but with care. Letting them thrash about could cause injury, though so could putting a death grip on them. Make no mistake, if given the opportunity, these birds would easily fly away. We worked too hard to let that happen.

I put one hand over each wing and then connected my fingers on top of the duck’s stomach. This seemed to strike the proper balance.

One-by-one we made our way through the pile of 117 ducks. There were 111 mallards and six wood ducks in total.

Seven of the birds had been banded before. In that case, the band number was called out, the information recorded in a notebook for later reference, and the duck was sent back on its way.

With eight people banding, the entire process took about half an hour.

There was one last order of business: rolling the net back up so that it could be prepared for the next shoot. Our crew assembled on one side of the net and rhythmically rolled it toward us, making a neat mesh log.

We headed back to the shop and disinfected our rain suits and boots before grabbing breakfast at a local restaurant.

My dad and I chatted about the morning over a cup of coffee while waiting for our meal. It was wonderful to see hunters and non-hunters alike join forces for a common cause.

We both agreed this was one of the coolest outdoor experiences we had ever had. Each of us would do this again in a heartbeat.

Both my dad and I were grateful for a chance to make the most of the present with a hopeful eye on the future.

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