Pilot-Biologists Shrug Off the Cold and Take to the Skies for Mid-winter Surveys

Mid-Winter Survey
Written by Mark Koneff
Thursday, January 15, 2015

Photo of Mark Koneff.Since 1935, pilot-biologists have been flying the winter skies to count birds. Known as the Mid-winter Survey, this coordinated, federal-state survey of wintering waterfowl provides information about species distribution and abundance. For some species, particularly those that breed in inaccessible regions of the arctic, the Mid-winter Survey provides the primary annual index to species abundance and is used to guide the establishment of hunting regulations.

The Mid-Winter Survey also helps with evaluating and planning habitat conservation efforts under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, supports research projects, guides land acquisition and protection efforts, assesses environmental impacts, and helps in the development of mitigation proposals. The survey starts in early January and is flown by a combination of federal and state personnel across the nation.

While the survey provides a snap-shot of waterfowl distribution and abundance during the winter, its longevity has proved useful in understanding distributional change in relation to climatic and land use changes.

Learn more about USFWS Pilot-Biologists as they fly the skies counting birds during a variety of air surveys!

Looking for eiders downeast. These Islands are off the shore of Maine.

Looking for eiders downeast. These Islands are off the shore of Maine. Photo by Mark Koneff, US FWS

Great place to spot some Harlequins. These little teal-sized sea ducks make a living in the hostile surf zone along the Maine coast. Tough little buggers.

Great place to spot some Harlequins. These little teal-sized sea ducks make a living in the hostile surf zone along the Maine coast. Tough little buggers. Photo by Mark Koneff, US FWS

A view of Acadia National Park from the sea.

A view of Acadia National Park from the sea. Photo by Mark Koneff, US FWS

Egg Rock in the middle of Frenchman Bay offshore of Acadia National Park. The Egg Rock light was established in 1875 and now the light and island are in the possession of the USFWS. The island is managed for nesting seabirds.

Egg Rock in the middle of Frenchman Bay offshore of Acadia National Park. The Egg Rock light was established in 1875 and now the light and island are in the possession of the USFWS. The island is managed for nesting seabirds. Photo by Mark Koneff, US FWS

In Bath, Maine, morning sea smoke and fog, now dissipated, coated the trees in frost.  Air temperature around -15F.

In Bath, Maine, morning sea smoke and fog, now dissipated, coated the trees in frost. Air temperature around -15F. Photo by Mark Koneff, US FWS

Why I love Maine!  Owls Head light, seen from a vantage over Muscungus Bay.

Why I love Maine! Owls Head light, seen from a vantage over Muscungus Bay. Photo by Mark Koneff, US FWS

Light winds and overcast sky combine to create great survey conditions over upper Penobscot Bay in Maine.

Light winds and overcast sky combine to create great survey conditions over upper Penobscot Bay in Maine. Photo by Mark Koneff, US FWS

Important Waterfowl Banding In Progress

image of USFWS staff conducting duck banding operations in SaskatchewanBrad Bortner, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Division Chief of Migratory Bird Management is in Saskatchewan, Canada with several of the pilot biologists you'll recognize from their contributions to our flight logs - Mark Koneff, Phil Thorpe and Walt Rhodes - and others from the Service, to band ducks for the annual waterfowl banding project. Banding ducks is part of the effort to continue gathering knowledge for better management of waterfowl, providing information on population estimates, migration patterns, life span, survivability, productivity, and disease prevalence. The Division of Migratory Bird Management undertakes a number of surveys in conjunction with the USFWS Regional Offices, the Canadian Wildlife Service, and State and Provincial wildlife-management agencies.

Using the Bands Across America search tools found on this site, you can query and map waterfowl banding data as recent as this past spring all the way back to 1914.

Your search of more than 3.6 million banding records can be narrowed or expanded using multiple criteria to easily see banding and recovery locations. All results are plotted on a scalable map, offering critical information for waterfowl biologists monitoring populations across the continent.

Search the Map

View More Images on the USFWS Migratory Birds Program Facebook page

2014 Status of Waterfowl Report Released

American Wigeon photo, Credit: Brendan Lally, FlickrFinal results from the 2014 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey are now available. Preliminary reports are confirmed -- a total duck population estimate of 49.2 million birds in the traditional survey area, which is an 8% increase over last year's tally and 43% above the long term average.

View Video Report

Download 2014 Report

2014 Trends in Breeding Duck Populations Report - Now Available

Lesser scaup pair on the Earl Grey transect, Southern Manitoba. Credit: Marc Schuster, Canadian Wildlife Service.

Preliminary 2014 duck population and pond estimates from the annual Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey are now available. The estimate of 49.2 million breeding ducks was 8% higher than last year’s estimate of 45.6 million, and 43% above the long-term average. The total pond estimate was 7.2 million, similar to last year’s estimate of 6.9 million and 40% above the long-term average of 5.1 million. Spring was delayed even later than last year across most of the survey area. Habitat conditions during the survey were mostly improved or similar to last year, due to average to above-average annual precipitation. The exceptions were west-central Alberta and east of James Bay in Quebec. Note: Estimates sometimes change between the preliminary numbers and final results.

View Pond Numbers

View Duck Numbers

View Habitat Conditions Map

Download Trends Report

Ungava Peninsula Canada Goose Survey Wraps Up

Image of Payne Bay in the Ungava Peninsula, Credit: Steve Earsom, USFWS

Caribou clogging the runway and sunrise at 3:30 were a couple of the unique situations veteran pilot biologist Steve Earsom had to prepare for when he traveled from his usual spring gig conducting the 2014 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey in Ontario to the Ungava Peninsula to fly a Canada Goose survey there. While still unofficial, his first blush assessment is that that the goose numbers for the eastern side seem very similar to the data from 2012 (a relatively good year) and the habitat throughout the peninsula was good, with plenty of water. His adventures during the survey are captured in words and images in our pilot biologist flight logs.

Read the Ungava Survey flight logs.

Good Habitat Conditions in Sight as 2014 Spring Survey Takes Flight

The 2014 Breeding Population and Habitat Survey has begun, and the initial view from 150 feet in the air above eastern South Dakota is a good one. The first of a dozen crews stationed throughout Canada and the northern United States took off May 4 out of Pierre, South Dakota and recent rains reveal a stark contrast to last years dry conditions. The other air crews and their associated ground crews are expected to begin surveying their areas soon, and as in the past you can look to our Pilot Biologist Reports for daily updates and images revealing what they are observing.

A cooperative effort of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Canadian Wildlife Service, and state, provincial, and tribal agencies, this survey currently covers more than 2.1 million square miles of the northern United States and Canada, and includes most of the primary duck nesting areas in North America.

Mid-winter Waterfowl Surveys

Mid-Winter Survey
Written by Jim Wortham
Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Photo of Jim Wortham.Every January, Biologists-Pilots of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in cooperation with State agencies conduct the Mid-winter Waterfowl Surveys. These surveys are designed to be a snapshot in time of ducks, geese, and swans wintering in concentrations in many States. “MidWinters” as we call them provide Federal and State waterfowl biologists with a broad-scale estimate of wintering abundance and distribution of birds across the four Flyways. Although statistically this survey has it’s warts, there is really no better tool available. In specific cases, results of this survey can also be used to assess environmental impacts to wintering habitats, assess avian disease outbreaks, and support acquisition programs for real estate which could be used as refuges for wintering birds.

As expected, this survey is always fraught with delays, most due to weather, but some also caused by aircraft maintenance schedules or equipment failures. Currently, the airplane which we are using to survey the coastal areas of the Carolinas is undergoing a mandated inspection which is required every 100 hours of use. Technicians have been working overtime to return this “bird” to service, and luckily we have not yet missed very many good-weather days while waiting. Our best estimates now are that the aircraft will be ready tomorrow, and we will immediately get back to work, first surveying birds over several islands in the Chesapeake Bay, and then hurrying back to North Carolina to resume work in the Pamlico Sound.

Thanks to technicians like this working overtime, our 100-mile inspection did not cause us to miss many good-weather flying days.

Thanks to technicians like this working overtime, our 100-mile inspection did not cause us to miss many good-weather flying days. Photo by Jim Wortham, USFWS

Late Season Waterfowl Hunting Frameworks Proposed; 2013 Status of Waterfowl Report Released

American Wigeon photo, Donna Dewhurst, US FWSFinal results from the 2013 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey are now available. Preliminary reports are confirmed -- a total duck population estimate of 45.6 million birds in the traditional survey area, which is a 6% decrease over last year's tally, but still 33% higher than the long term average.

Based on the status report, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed hunting regulations for the upcoming 2013-2014 late waterfowl seasons. Hunting season lengths of 60 days were proposed for the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways, with 74 days for the Central Flyway (with an additional 23 days in the High Plains areas) and 107 days for the Pacific Flyway.

A full season on pintails would be offered nation-wide with a two bird daily bag limit, and a full season on canvasbacks with a two bird daily bag limit offered nation-wide. Increased possession limits for ducks and geese to three times the daily bag limit has also been proposed.

Read Proposed Frameworks News Release

View Video Status Report

Download 2013 Status Report

2013 Adaptive Harvest Management Report

This hard copy report provides waterfowl managers and the public with information about the use of Adaptive Harvest Management for setting waterfowl regulations in the United States.

Download AHM Report

2013 Trends in Breeding Duck Populations Report - Now Available

Green-winged Teal on the Melita Transect, Southwestern Manitoba. Credit: Marc Schuster, Canadian Wildlife Service.

Preliminary 2013 duck population and pond estimates from the annual Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey are now available. The estimate of 45.6 million breeding ducks was 6% lower than last year’s estimate of 48.6 million, but was still 33% above the long-term average. The total pond estimate was 6.9 million, which was 24% above last year’s estimate of 5.5 million and 35% above the long-term average of 5.1 million. Despite a delayed spring over most of the survey area, habitat conditions were improved or similar to last year in many areas due to average to above-average annual precipitation, with the exception being southeastern Canada, the northeast U.S., and portions of Montana and the Dakotas. Note: Estimates sometimes change between the preliminary numbers and final results.

Read News Release

View Pond Numbers

View Duck Numbers

View Habitat Conditions Map

Download Trends Report

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