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Tracking Scoters from Yakutat, Alaska

By Dr. Scott Ford

In April of this year I had the pleasure of dropping into the small Alaska town of Yakutat to assist Alaska Department of Fish and Game. My role was to implant satellite transmitters into 18 surf and white-winged scoters to track their movements. There are still many unknowns about where sea ducks go to breed after staging or wintering in Southeastern Alaska. This study will help fill in those gaps.

ADFG Biologist Tasha DiMarzio marking a GPS location on our first day of scoter scouting.

The crew of biologists had the really tough job– they were out in boats most of the days in all but the roughest weather. The birds were caught using floating mist nets with decoys to help lure the birds in. It wasn’t hard to find the scoters as recent herring spawn created a feeding bonanza for not just them but a myriad of species of birds and marine mammals. In fact, part of the problem was preventing the capture of non-targeted species.

I’m happy to say that all the birds did well and continue to transmit data 4 months later. This is rather extraordinary as scoters are notoriously delicate from the standpoint of invasive implants. It’s rare that an implant project with surf scoters does not result in some loss within a month after surgery. It’s difficult to know for sure but losses may be the result of direct complications from surgery (e.g., infection) or indirectly through decreases in ability to feed, stay warm, or avoid predation. I strive to disrupt the lives of the birds as little as possible and have pioneered the use of multimodal analgesia. I have also made my own modifications of surgery technique & bird handling and have advocated for the use of isoflurane and pressurized oxygen for field anesthesia. Hopefully this combination has helped increase survival and comfort for our implant patients.

Field Technician Caroline Brady. She loves field work so much that she regularly volunteers for ADFG projects. She’s indispensable in the field and a great anesthetist, though I know she prefers the field.

I’d also like to credit the efforts of the crew of biologists: Tasha, Caroline, Dennis, Jason, Adam, Captain Greg, Courtney, and Tyler. Tyler put the trip together and all of them tirelessly captured the birds and delivered them quickly to me for surgery. They were a fun group to work with and I look forward to working with them again on future projects.

I can’t leave this off without telling you about Yakutat. It’s a tiny town with a lot to offer. It’s best known for world class salmon fishing, which is the biggest draw for many regulars. There’s a lot of guides in town but my recommendation is John Latham of Blue Heron Inn. Not only does he have a great place to stay but he can hook you up with guided fishing excursions. He has over 50 years of experience in the area so you won’t find a better guide.

A visit to Harlequin Lake. The air was so still that all you could hear were the gurgles of millions of tiny drops of meltwater percolating through the melting ice. Occasionally there was a crash as a pinnacle of ice toppled or the distant Yakutat Glacier calved.

But even if you don’t fish, there’s plenty to enjoy. The backdrop of mountains is a feast for the eyes. I couldn’t help but use some of my waiting time to do a couple of sketches on my iPad. And wildlife is right outside the door. During my waiting hours I was fixated by 4 active bald eagle nests within a half mile of our lodge. Beach combing was my near-daily exercise routine leading me to find forgotten stone markers, eagle skeletons, and wrecked boats to explore. There’s a hangar at the airport with a completely intact C-47 that saw action in Normandy and Sicily in World War II. The owner, Bob Miller of the Situk River Fly Shop, loves to show it to people so stop in there if you visit. And, when the weather was too rough for capture activities, we piled into the rented Suburban and drove out for day hikes to places such as glacier-filled Harlequin Lake shown below. I think it’s safe to say that there’s something for everyone in Yakutat.

I’ll keep you updated on what we learn from the ducks. Stay tuned!

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