Snapshot Profile: Waterfowl Extraordinaire

Here we are again with another edition of the snapshot profiles! This edition will be on one of the primary leaders (and one of my supervisors) for the Dusky Canada Goose nest monitoring project.

At the start of May, when I had just arrived at Cordova, I was invited to attend Miles’ birthday party. Miles is a juvenile chocolate lab. This was a great opportunity to meet the majority of the people I will be working with in the US Forest Service and their pets. As Melissa (one of my supervisors) introduced me to the people, I could not help but notice that Nick Docken was wearing big chunky white boots, which he informed me were bunny boots. Bunny boots are the nickname for military grade winter boots that allow you to walk comfortably in sub-zero temperatures. Imagine snowshoe hare feet, warm and wide – perfect for walking in the snow.

Now that I have collaborated with Nick in the Wildlife Department, it makes sense why he would own a pair of bunny boots. Before arriving to Cordova as the Permanent Seasonal Wildlife Technician, he worked with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) on a White-fronted Goose study on the North Slope of Alaska. In fact, he had never worked with Duskys before and had learned about them from a USGS coworker. The project leader at the time was actually how Nick found his current position. He had worked with Nick’s current supervisor in the field and he spoke highly of Nick. In addition, Melissa was in charge of the Dusky project and he had recognized her name from a previous collaboration in the Yukon Delta and from graduate school. What a small world!

Ever since he was a kid, Nick had a passion for waterfowl. With the guidance of his father he spent the majority of his time hunting in the outdoors. As he got older and his passion for waterfowl grew, he attended UW-Stevens Point, for their fantastic natural resources program. Afterwards he worked with waterfowl in the Prairie Pothole Region, also known as the upper part of the Midwest which contains thousands of scattered wetlands. Once he received his Master’s in Biology with an emphasis on Wildlife and Fisheries at South Dakota State University, Nick worked in Barrow as a seasonal tech with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In this city of northern Alaska he was a crew leader for a Steller’s Eider (sea duck) population study. After that he studied the Lesser Scaup (diving duck) in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge north of the Yukon River. Although these places are within the frigid Arctic Circle, in the spring and summer they are vital breeding grounds for waterfowl and other migratory birds.

Nick (above) in a survival suit and helmet while driving an airboat. Safety first!

As someone who has worked in several agencies, he recommended that I gain diverse experiences, “Being a generalist is fine; you don’t have to narrowly focus on a species or topic.” He also said that I should make sure to network. Whenever I can I should attend conferences and talk to scientists and people who are in projects or in the field of my interest. He said, “Connections are key; it’s not what you know, but who you know.” I agree, as during college I stepped out of my comfort zone to attend the science symposiums and talk to people about their projects. With much persistence that is how I was able to work with my undergrad advisor and professor for two years on a chickadee behavior project with no bird banding experience.

Of course I had to ask him what his favorite bird was, and he said he liked the Harlequin Duck and various other ducks. He did not grow up around them so while others see them as common birds he always appreciates seeing them. His absolute favorite is the drake Mallard. He mentioned that it is an iconic bird that has helped develop various waterfowl models and is a duck that can be found almost anywhere. He said that drake Mallards may seem boring but they’re an “easy going everybody likes kind of guy, [who is] really adaptive.” Sounds like his spirit animal to me!

Although this is my second interview I am just getting started! I am excited to talk to the others in the Wildlife and Ecology team here at the Forest Service and not only learn about their career paths, but also their interests and passions. Keep an eye out for more of these snapshot profiles!

Hillary Chavez
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