Joe Sands: Duck Banding Looks Different in 2020 for Waterfowl Biologist

How the COVID-19 has changed seasonal fieldwork for a bird biologist

By: Joe Sands is a waterfowl biologist in Migratory Birds and Habitat program based in Portland, Oregon.

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Lake County, Oregon covers an area nearly twice the size of Connecticut, and is home to more cows than people, but people have lived there for at least 14,000 years. In the Pleistocene, gigantic lakes covered huge portions of the Great Basin, and attracted large numbers of waterfowl and other wildlife. The areas around these massive shores were home to peoples long since lost to history.

​​​​​​​The lakes have largely dried up though a few large shallow basins remain, and their marshes still attract large numbers of waterfowl that breed in the summer, increase their abundance in the fall and move south as the wetlands freeze. They come back again in the spring as they migrate north to start the cycle over. It’s an old land; some of the oldest rocks in Oregon are exposed in a geography of upheaval as the earth’s crust is stretched apart. It’s a place where ancient and more recent history meet, and afternoon winds kick alkali dust off the playa.

Joe poses, wearing a ball cap with a backpack. a dry brown landscape stretches back behind him. The sky above is a vivid blue.
Joe Sands out duck banding in Lake County, OR. Credit: Joe Sands

I have my own small piece of history intertwined in this vast landscape of basin and range. I grew up in a small town in southwestern Oregon and my high school played football each fall in another small town in south-central Oregon (the long road trip alternating each season). After the games a couple of friends, our dads, and I would stay the weekend to hunt waterfowl. We did this for four years from 1996 to 1999, and it was always a great time. I killed my first ducks and first California quail in that area. We hunted all over, way back in wetlands, and out in the uplands. Around the time I was a junior in high school I couldn’t explain why, but I realized I might be interested in becoming a wildlife biologist. This was influenced greatly by these trips. As a teenager, the area we hunted was one of my favorite places to go. I was awed by the natural beauty of the region and the panoramic views from the uplift of Winter Rim. I loved the cold, early, mornings, hot coffee, and working with hunting dogs all day. In the fall of 2000, I started as a freshman at Oregon State University in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Science.

Fast forward twenty years and a lot of life has happened: marriage, a child, graduate school and post-doctoral work at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, an English pointer and a Labrador retriever, a job with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, another child, a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Regional Office in Portland, Oregon, and another child. Most aspects of life are unpredictable. As is evident from other blogs in this series, COVID-19 threw a hitch in to normal USFWS banding operations. But changes that are disappointing at first have potential to create opportunities that would have otherwise gone unexplored. Normally Steve Olson and I would be in the Northwest Territories banding ducks, but travel restrictions changed that. After some deliberation about where to band, Steve decided that south-central Oregon, in the vicinity of the areas made so special to me in my youth, would be a good place to put some effort in to duck banding (See Contingency Plan with Contingencies by Steve Olson). It was a good decision.

​​​​​​​Having the opportunity to do field work as a professional in an area with so much personal meaning to me was great. I’ve been lucky to see a lot of great places in my career, and being there didn’t disappoint. We caught over 1,800 ducks, nearly all of which were mallards. We got the chance to nightlight birds with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and assist with their effort.The double duty days of our own work coupled with theirs was worth it. A month of being immersed in the world of waterfowl is always worth it. And I don’t mean the professional world so much, but their actual world. You’re out there in the marsh observing birds, watching their movements, seeing miniature migration events. It’s not easy to verbalize.The pleasure in this is more visceral. It reminded me of being a skinny teenager in the 1990s hoping to get some birds for my young dog and learning how to do things out there the right way. I can’t wait to bring my own kids out this fall and start them down their own paths in the desert.

Duck Banding Recipe Roundup

No matter where you are in the world, life is too short to eat poorly. Especially after long days in the marsh. Our banding crew made a lot of “parking lot” meals on a two burner propane grill and a small charcoal grill, while eating canned sardine and crackers as appetizers. Here are two of our favorites.

A plate with food sits in the foreground with a pan behind it.
An elk chorizo burrito plated. Credit: Joe Sands

Elk Chorizo Black Bean Burritos

2 lbs elk chorizo
1 can black beans
1 onion
1 bay leaf
1 pack tortillas
Monterrey jack and cheddar cheese (shredded).
2 tomatoes (diced)

Brown chorizo in dutch oven (it helps to have a friend who made homemade elk chorizo and gave you 2 lbs of it. Thanks Ben Miller.). Add onion and cook until translucent. Add bay leaf. Rinse black beans and add to mix. Cook at least 20–30 mins on low-med heat. Can simmer longer if necessary; as long as you don’t burn the mixture the long cook time will blend flavors nicely. Heat up cast iron skillet and place a tortilla. It will puff a bit. Turn tortilla and set on a side plate. Fill tortillas with chorizo mixture and top with tomatoes and jack/cheddar cheese.

1,000 Bird Burgers

2 lbs ground beef (recommend 80% lean)
Johnny’s Seasoning Salt
Thousand Island dressing
Cheddar cheese
Tomatoes
Lettuce
Hamburger buns of choice

Form beef in to quarter lb patties. Season liberally with Johnny’s. Grill on cast iron skillet on med-high heat until outside of burgers are caramelized and done to medium rare/medium (or well done if you’re one of those people). Place cheese on burger and melt. Spread Thousand Island dressing on bun and top with tomato and lettuce (lettuce goes on top of cheese tomato on top lettuce; don’t mess this up). Ketchup and mustard optional.

Note: Tastes best after 1,000 birds are banded in a month!

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Conservation stories from one of the world’s most ecologically diverse regions.

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