Louisiana biologist ventured to Arctic Circle to band geese
James Whitaker’s primary workplace is the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in southwest Louisiana. However, August found him a bit north of there.
Roughly 2,800 miles north, as the goose flies.
And geese is what the biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries had on his mind.
Whitaker spent 10 days inside the Arctic Circle in the extreme north of Canada banding geese that, a few months from now, may be in his more familiar Cameron Parish neighborhood. While he does other banding or aerial surveys outside the state, Whitaker had never ventured that far north.
“A deer biologist would maybe focus on one small area because deer have small home ranges,” Whitaker said. “Waterfowl will cover from the Arctic all the way down to coastal Louisiana and farther south in some cases. We can’t just focus on Louisiana, which is important, but we have to look at the whole life cycle of the animal, how we can manage it and monitor it.”
Whitaker joined three Canadian biologists and a helicopter pilot in the Queen Maud Gulf Bird Sanctuary, a roughly 24,000-square-mile preserve accessible only by air or boat. In the brief summer there, millions of waterfowl come to breed. While there, they also replace their flight feathers. That molting period leaves them grounded for about two weeks, giving biologists a chance to catch and band thousands of them.
The sanctuary is one of the world’s largest intact natural grasslands, far north of the tree line. There are no roads and few permanent structures. Whitaker’s team banded about 2,000 geese a day when weather permitted, which it did for six of their 10 days there.
That’s a small percentage of the millions of geese that stop there, but it makes a difference, Whitaker said. Wildlife services ask hunters who harvest the banded geese farther south to report that information online at reportband.gov. The information helps form annual survivor estimates, which goes into management plans and bag limits for hunters.
“Because Louisiana is such an important state for overwintering is why we participate,” Whitaker said. “Those are massive migrations from the Arctic Circle to the Gulf and beyond.”
The Canadian Wildlife Service picked up the bill for this banding effort, including Whitaker’s participation, which focused on two species of snow geese and Ross’ geese. The team flew commercially to Cambridge Bay, Nunavet, bought groceries and then flew a small airplane to a mud strip. A helicopter took them and their supplies to a small, wooden camp built in the 1960s.
“Most people probably would not be able to tolerate it, because it’s extremely off the grid, but it’s OK,” Whitaker said. “We’ve got a little pot-bellied stove in there to keep us warm. We’ve got a Coleman cook stove and some bunk beds. All it is is a place to sleep and eat.”
With the extended daylight at that northern latitude, they worked 14-hour days. They rode a helicopter until they found large numbers of geese, then set up wire pens to corral 500 to 800 at a time so they could put aluminum bands on their legs. Once the pens were set up, the helicopter chased geese toward the pens.
Thus began an assembly line: two biologists banding, one providing the bands, one recording the data. Team members traded tasks from time to time, because banding these geese is work.
“They’re tough,” Whitaker said. “They make a 3,000-mile migration two ways every year — very, very strong birds.”
Including the birds that aren’t part of the banding project, there are millions of birds that make it to Queen Maud Gulf, and they eat voraciously to fuel up for the journey south. Where the birds stay, everything is eaten to the dirt, Whitaker said.
“They’re hard on the land,” he said. “They’re the dominant grazers in that ecosystem. They out-eat caribou and muskox because there are so many of them.”
Those geese have already begun their southward journey, some of which will either winter in Louisiana’s rice fields or coastal marsh, where they might see a familiar face.
“This was a unique opportunity,” Whitaker said.