Knocking Off Deltas

Written by Steve Olson
Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Steve OlsonTwo years ago, I worked the ground crew in Eastern Dakotas with my Central Flyway counterpart, Kammie Kruse. This was a great opportunity to appreciate the skills needed to identify birds flushing quickly and to better understand the procedure of this survey. I adjusted rather quickly then, given my hunting and waterfowl background, and considered myself a prairie pro by time we wrapped up. I had a great time in the Dakotas that year, mostly because our crew meshed instantly, and because I was able to return to the prairies for breeding season for the first time since working for Ducks Unlimited on my first “duck job.” It was that spring and summer seven years ago that I finally realized the direction I wanted to go as a student and a professional, and began my whirlwind tour of waterfowl biology and deltas.

Pilot biologist Fred Roetker and I now sit in Fairbanks, Alaska, waiting for our Kodiak to clear an annual, 100-hour inspection and maintenance check. We have finished Alberta and British Columbia, and are thus 34% done with our segments. I wake every day and struggle to convince myself of what I have seen and will see. I reflect on other “duck-heads” and explorers that first witnessed these areas before me, and know how fortunate I am to be a part of this rather exclusive group.

What excites me the most, however, are the deltas. Northern river deltas have created some of the most productive waterfowl (and general water bird) breeding habitat in the world. The sounds and calls of these birds as they establish their miniscule territories can be measured on a scale of large cities. The first northern delta I witnessed was 6 years ago on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, in Alaska. I have often told people you could not walk a straight line in any direction without stepping on or over a bird nest. It is such a wonderful place.

This May and June, I am fortunate enough to witness the largest freshwater inland delta in the world, the Peace-Athabasca Delta in northeast Alberta, and the vast waterfowl habitat of the Mackenzie River Delta on the Arctic coast of The Northwest Territories. Both of these were on my life list of deltas, and to fly aerial transects at 150 feet has been and will continue to be an experience of a lifetime.

USFWS Pilot Biologist, Fred Roetker and I about to survey our southernmost segments in Alberta, while awaiting wetland thaw further north.

USFWS Pilot Biologist, Fred Roetker and I about to survey our southernmost segments in Alberta, while awaiting wetland thaw further north. Photo by Steve Olson, USFWS

Most of the boreal forest can be very non-eventful, as far as waterfowl are concerned.  The most common nesting species are green-winged teal, mallards, and ring-necked ducks.  Sandhill cranes are also quite common nesters in these vast upland bogs.

Most of the boreal forest can be very non-eventful, as far as waterfowl are concerned. The most common nesting species are green-winged teal, mallards, and ring-necked ducks. Sandhill cranes are also quite common nesters in these vast upland bogs. Photo by Steve Olson, USFWS

The largest freshwater inland delta in the world and UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Peace-Athabasca Delta in northeast Alberta.  One of my favorite sites in the world.

The largest freshwater inland delta in the world and UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Peace-Athabasca Delta in northeast Alberta. One of my favorite sites in the world. Photo by Steve Olson, USFWS

Video taken with my camera of flying the Peace-Athabasca River Delta. You can see a herd of wood buffalo, which the National Park was named after as well as the extensive waterfowl habitat.
Video by Steve Olson, USFWS