Northern Saskatchewan, Northern Manitoba

North for the Final Push; May 23-30

Northern Saskatchewan, Northern Manitoba
Written by Mike Rabe
Monday, May 28, 2012

Mike RabeAfter all the troubles we had early in the survey, we finally hit our stride this week. The plane ran great on the ferry north, the weather cooperated, and we had little trouble with the remaining transects. Spring has just sprung in Northern Saskatchewan; the ducks are paired up and the ice has disappeared from the smaller waters. This is the land of black and white ducks: scaup, goldeneye, and bufflehead mostly. So what was that single drake pintail I counted on the last day doing there? I am sure his hen was in the weeds nearby. The insects are just beginning to come out (we can tell that from how dirty the windshield gets by the end of the day). Only the bigger lakes still had ice and it was going out fast. Our last stop was Stony Rapids, where we finished the last transects in record time. Kevin and I were glad to head back south on May 29 and even then, things went well. Smooth air and tailwinds followed us all the way to Bismarck. This year’s survey proved the advice my grandfather gave me years ago--persistence is the only quality that guarantees success in every endeavor.

You Take Mine and I'll Take Yours

Northern Saskatchewan, Northern Manitoba
Written by Mike Rabe
Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Mike RabeIn aviation, you always have a plan B (and C, and D). After consulting with Jim Wortham (Aviation Branch Chief for FWS population surveys) Kevin and Jim come up with plan B. We will return to Bismarck and pick up Terry Liddick’s plane. Terry finished his survey in the Dakotas last week, so his plane is ready and proven. Even though this is not really a safety issue, it could become a problem should we continue north of Fort McMurray with our current airplane. Our next stop, Stony Rapids, has no mechanic to fix a broken alternator belt. Being stuck in Stony rapids waiting for a mechanic to fly in and fix the plane would not help speed along the survey effort. So this is the right decision.

Groundhog Day?

Northern Saskatchewan, Northern Manitoba
Written by Mike Rabe
Saturday, May 19, 2012

Mike RabeNorth (and west) to Fort McMurray Alberta, May 18 - I love basing out of La Ronge, but like all good things, it has to end. Our third stop is Fort McMurray, Alberta; gateway to the tar sands. Known as “Fort Mac” to the locals, this is a boom-town full of new construction and filled up hotels. If you don’t plan this arrival, you could end up sleeping in the plane. Fortunately, like most pilots, Kevin is a compulsive planner and we have rooms waiting when we get here. We don’t have any survey transects to fly in Alberta, but Fort Mac is in eastern Alberta, near the western end of our survey area in Saskatchewan and a convenient base of operations for this leg. We park the plane at McMurray Aviation, which has a well-equipped shop. The mechanic works nights keeping their fleet going, and since the plane is due for an oil change, Kevin schedules it for that evening. This is perfect; the plane gets maintenance at night and we survey by day. In the morning, they inform Kevin that the mechanic found the alternator belt was flipped upside down on its pulley and he replaced it. This is a bit disconcerting to Kevin, since he had alternator belt issues getting to Bismarck and he is worried. I’m not. I am counting ducks in northern Saskatchewan in spring and flying every day. My wife tells me it is over 100 degrees in Phoenix; it is only getting into the mid 60s here. Life is good.

A Day in the Life

Northern Saskatchewan, Northern Manitoba
Written by Mike Rabe
Friday, May 18, 2012

Mike RabeOn a typical day, we base out of a town close to the survey transects, leave every morning and return in the evening. Every night we listen to the recordings of the ducks we saw that day (we record ourselves counting out loud) and transcribe those into a file that the statisticians can read and analyze at a later date. The memories from last year’s survey come flowing back. I recognize some of the lakes and landscape we flew over last year and rewire my brain to work the transcribe program. The boreal forest is huge. We sometimes fly an hour without seeing any roads or any signs of human activity. Moving through this country on foot, or even by ATV, would be almost impossible in spring and summer. Below the black spruce (stunted in many areas because the ground is saturated) are miles and miles of muskeg. Trying to hike through this would be pretty miserable. I can see game trails where moose, woodland caribou, or bear have moved through. The trails have all become small rivulets, filled with water. The “solid” ground between lakes is like a huge saturated sponge and is pretty flat. The rivers are all low-gradient affairs, winding along with minimal flow. This is not the American West I grew up in—there are no rapids here. Most people only venture into this country in winter when the ground is frozen. It belongs to the water, wildlife and mosquitoes in summer. I am glad we are 150 feet above it, moving too fast for the mosquitoes to find us. Ducks like it, though, and we see enough to keep us busy. I see more divers in a day here than I see in a whole season of duck hunting back in Arizona. Guess ducks really do like water…

La Ronge Waterbase

Northern Saskatchewan, Northern Manitoba
Written by Mike Rabe
Thursday, May 17, 2012

Mike RabeWe finished the transects north of Prince Albert and moved north to La Ronge, Saskatchewan. Because there is a water base in La Ronge, and we are in a float plane, we end up docking the float plane at the water base each evening. This way, instead of having to rent a car to get back and forth, we have a 5-minute walk to the dock in the morning and the same in the afternoon. The exercise is welcome after a day of sitting in a bouncing airplane looking down for hours, scanning for ducks. Survey is mentally taxing but you don’t get much physical exercise. Your eyes are moving constantly but the rest of your body just sits (or bounces, depending on turbulence). I do get some exercise pumping the floats dry every morning. Pilots analyze and worry about weather, examine the plane every day for airworthiness, plan survey routes, fly, and count ducks. Observers clean windshields, pump floats, and count ducks. Pumping floats is a small price to pay for water landings. Not everyone likes small airplanes, but if you do, it is hard to beat landing and taking off in a floatplane. I love it!

All the Usual Suspects

Northern Saskatchewan, Northern Manitoba
Written by Mike Rabe
Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mike RabeWe started out with a few hours of looking at ducks on Long Lake, which is north of Regina but still south of our survey area. It is always necessary to practice a little bit before the official survey begins. Both Kevin and I have counted ducks from aircraft for years (Kevin more than me) but it always takes a little while to get the eyes and brain both clicking along at 100 knots, our cruising speed for survey work. I come up to speed eventually (I may be slow but I am trainable) and Kevin is finally convinced that I know what I am doing. We head north to the survey area.

An Observer’sTale: Hurry Up and Wait

Northern Saskatchewan, Northern Manitoba
Written by Mike Rabe
Saturday, May 12, 2012

Mike RabeOn May 7 I flew from Phoenix, Arizona, to Bismarck, North Dakota, to meet my pilot, Kevin Fox, who is picking up the plane in Delaware and flying it here for the northern Saskatchewan-northern Manitoba surveys. Kevin flies planes for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska. I am the waterfowl biologist from Arizona Game and Fish Department. This is my third year helping the Fish and Wildlife Service as an observer for the May Breeding Population Survey. I was the observer last year in this same survey area. Last year’s survey pilot for this area, Walt Rhodes, is flying the Northwest Territories this year. I was eager to start the survey this year and looking forward to flying with Kevin. The plane was in the shop in preparation for the surveys, so we anticipated it would be in tip-top shape.

The Weather Gods Smiled

Northern Saskatchewan, Northern Manitoba
Written by Walt Rhodes
Thursday, June 02, 2011

Walt RhodesPulling off a successful survey hinges on many factors. The three primary ones are aircraft status, pilot-biologist/observer health, and weather. Weather is probably the most important because even if the pilot-biologist and the observer are feeling great and the airplane is running good, no one is going anywhere if the weather sucks.

Habitat Looks Good So Far

Northern Saskatchewan, Northern Manitoba
Written by Walt Rhodes
Monday, May 16, 2011

Walt RhodesThe abundant water on the Prairies has stretched north. Since arriving in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, from Regina, Mike and I have been able to get in two days of flying, and the habitat and timing of the survey looks good.

Crossing the Rock Pile

Northern Saskatchewan, Northern Manitoba
Written by Walt Rhodes
Friday, May 13, 2011

Walt RhodesI have never flown over the Rockies as pilot-in-command, and I’m still not sure that I have.

My observer, Mike Rabe, and I rendezvoused in Spokane, Washington, and left yesterday for Regina, Saskatchewan. Incidentally, Mike is no stranger to the breeding waterfowl survey or to flying. He’s the Migratory Bird biologist for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, was an observer for Pilot-Biologist, Terry Liddick, in North Dakota and Montana on last year’s survey, and is a pilot himself, too. It’s always helpful for a pilot-biologist when his/her observer has these skills.

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