Identifying Ducks On Aerial Waterfowl Surveys

Lakevill Airport.jpg I was planning on Monday being a busy day: wake up and meet the pilot and fellow counter at the small airport at 7am, count ducks for 2 hours, tweak an article due that day, take our new Kia in to our mechanic for the final approval, edit photos, have all my lines memorized because our rehearsal that night was our first night off book and if there was time a quick bike ride before winter sets in for real. A busy day, but nothing outlandish. The day started out well, as we left the tiny Lakeville airport, the skies were clear, all looked perfect for a morning of counting waterfowl on the Mississippi.

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Then we got to the river and noticed a problem. Some very dense low lying fog. Check it out, it's below that water tower, I love the shadow cast by the rising sun.

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The fog was just over the river, nowhere else. That makes finding ducks hard and flying low at 120 feet a bit too dangerous, we had to call the flight off for the time being. Our pilot flies all over using his plane to survey waterfowl all over the river, testing out aerial camera equipment, vegetation assessment, and documenting land use violations. He had two other flights to do that day, one to count waterfowl down by LaCrosse and another to take aerial photos of tundra swans. His plan was to fly down and do those surveys and meet up with us for our count later in the afternoon. My schedule wax flexible so that wasn't a problem but then I hatched a crazy plan and asked the pilot if I could fly down with him and observe the counts he was doing on the other side of the river. He wasn't sure since the plane was small and there would be two others on the flight, but fortunately for my short legs, he was able to squeeze me in. This complicated my plan, but it was one heck of an opportunity to watch and learn...and take photos!


And so we flew down to Winona, MN to pick up the other counters. I love, love flying in these small planes. Number 1, I can talk to and interact with the pilot so I know he's awake and sober. He also will mention hazards that he sees like cell phone towers. It's amazing what we can see from up above lie the above farm on top of one of the bluffs near the Mississippi River...or large piles of corn right in front of a deer stand (not pictured above). But flying in these small planes is really conquering my fear of flying and heights.

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I'm really getting spoiled traveling through all these tiny airports. For one thing, they all have dogs (note this lovely fellow had his own recliner). How can you not be in a good mood when greeted by a friendly pooch with soft fur and wagging tail? Secondly, there's no airport security, no baggage check, no taking off of shoes, no standing in line, no wanding, and there's free coffee. I'm going to be a bit whiny the next time I'm on a commercial flight.

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The flocks of ducks in this stretch of the Mississippi River was off the hook--insane numbers. I was grateful for the opportunity to be an observer, I would have been way too focused on fast id and quick counting to take pictures. The above is a mixture of canvasbacks, scaup, ring-necked ducks and a few coots. There's probably one or two gadwall in there as well.

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Here's a closer look of part of that flock, you can make out the canvasback shape (and the bright canvas colored back).


It was so cool to fly over Winona, MN and some of the other areas like Weaver Bottoms, I've gone there so many time to look for tundra swans and I wondered what it would be like to fly over it. I can't believe I actually got to do it. It was so cool.

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We flew right over the Brownsville, MN Swan Watch. Note all the white specks? Every single white speck is a tundra swan. We estimated that there were close to 7000 there. There were also thousands of smaller diving ducks mixed in too.

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Here's a closer view of the swans, rather than a 2000 feet like the previous photo, here's a view at about 100 feet. There also some mallards and Canada geese mixed in.


If you look closely, you can make out three bald eagles flying away from our plane--there were dozens mixed in on the islands near the swans--there were like mini flocks of eagles. I tried very hard to see if any of them were golden eagles since they are in the general area of where golden eagle 42 is supposed to spend the winter but they were all bald eagles.

Speaking of golden eagle 42, he's hanging out near here and I just got a phone call from Mark Martell and we're going to go out and look for him this morning. I'll post more on the surveys when we get back.