Airboats, in my opinion, defy logic and gravity. They glide effortlessly on the water with a heavy fan powered by a gas motor. Usually I imagine them in tropical waters of the Everglades. Yet as these boats glide across marshlands, the last place I would imagine them being driven is in the Copper River Delta of Alaska. After pondering, it makes sense that the air boats are on the Copper River Delta of Alaska because it is one of the largest contiguous wetlands in North America (700,000 acres!). The US Forest Service Chugach National Forest Cordova Ranger District uses these airboats on the delta for multiple projects, one being the Dusky Canada Goose Artificial Nest Island Monitoring.

Above is a pair of Dusky Canada Geese. Notice that one has a red collar which we use to keep track of individuals.

The Dusky Canada Goose has one of the smallest populations of geese in North America, and they breed primarily on the Copper River Delta. They have an interesting history with the Copper River Delta. A 1964 earthquake in Alaska raised the delta by two to six feet. As a result the vast wetlands became drier, and the lack of salt and raised land promoted the succession of shrubs and trees like Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis) and Black Cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa). With rapid vegetative succession, the population of predators such as bears, foxes, and bald eagles increased while habitat availability for the Dusky Goose decreased. With increased predation and lack of nest islands available, Dusky Goose populations declined; in the early 1980’s the population decreased to less than 10,000 birds. Therefore in 1984, Ducks Unlimited (a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of wetlands for waterfowl and people) initiated the monitoring of the species and an artificial nest island program. This program creates artificial nests as habitats for Dusky Geese. This increases their reproductive success despite increased predation. The maintenance of artificial nests is vital, and requires airboating to the delta and searching for nest islands that require upkeep. A “perfect” artificial nest contains sweet gale to provide aerial cover and anchored nests to prevent them from floating away.

Last week, the Wildlife and Ecology team (myself included!) within the Forest Service went out to the delta to set up for the Dusky Goose Camp. Luckily, the weather was on our side and it was overcast. Given that it was my first time being on an airboat, I looked forward to becoming an “aquatic-astronaut”. To provide you with some context, safety regulations require us to put on earplugs, a bright orange survival suit, and a motorcycle helmet. We also had to wear extra layers, because when it is around 40 degrees outside and we are in a 40 mph vessel it gets extra chilly! Once we arrived at camp we had to set up weather ports or tents that will be housing and the kitchen area. It was a lot of fun to set up the tents using rods and connectors. Just imagine circus workers setting up tents. We also had to set up safety precautions such as a bear fence; since Alaska is bear country we don’t want bears to surprise us in the middle of the night in search of food. Although we had to dedicate an entire work day to setting up the camp, it was fun to get out there and get a sense of what kind of environment I will be working with during the study and maintenance of the Dusky Goose nest islands. Until next week, when I’ll be talking to one of the main players behind this study!

Final Note: Dusky Canada Goose information was taken from Wildlife and Ecology Annual Report 2015 for the US Forest Service Prince William Sound Cordova and Glacier Ranger Districts.

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