Paul Link is Louisiana Department Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks’s North American Waterfowl Management Plan Coordinator. Number of mid-continental white-fronted geese overwintering in southwestern Louisiana has declined drastically in recent years, and Link’s real-time telemetry studies has enabled a greater understanding of Louisiana specklebellies’ life habits and migrational patterns. What is the scope of this research and what does it entail? What factors could be contributing to decline of overwintering white-fronted geese in southwestern Louisiana? How are concerned hunter-conservationists becoming involved? Link shares a wealth of interesting information with Ramsey Russell about a fascinating topic.
Paul Link Explains Why Wintering White-fronted Geese May Be Declining in Louisiana and Mostly Privately-funded Specklebelly Research To Better Understand This Culturally Important Waterfowl Species
We’re putting together the life cycle, the ecology, of mid-continent white-fronts in order to tie all these little pieces together with wintering habitat selection and cross-seasonal effects. We have these theories that perhaps wintering habitat use, and the winter body condition, has an influence on a bird’s subsequent spring and summer production. We can get all that information and put together an energetics model of the birds. Determine proportionate time spent in each of those habitats. We can then compare and contrast regions within the state and among states to see if white-fronted geese in southwest Louisiana is burning more energy than white-fronts in eastern Arkansas. If those geese up there are acting and behaving differently, if they’re getting less disturbance and there’s more forage, there could be longer-term population level effects for where a white-fronted goose chooses to winter.
Ramsey Russell: Hey guys, thank y’all for joining me for another great Duck Season Somewhere podcast episode. Ramsey Russell, GetDucks. I’m in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on a hot June day. I’m sitting in an office, thank goodness. I’m meeting with today’s guest, Paul Link. Y’all listen up. This is a fascinating story that came to me from an Instagram account follower from down here in Louisiana. I was aware of this, but this is going to be a little bit deeper of a conversation. Consider this: at one time in the not too far back past, southwest Louisiana overwintered 80% of the mid-continent population—which is to say, the Mississippi and Central Flyways’ worth—of specklebelly geese. Eighty percent! Today’s numbers? 18%. What happened? Well, Paul Link will be able to shed a little bit of light, and I think y’all are really going to enjoy this conversation. Paul, how are you today?
Paul Link: Been better, but we’re making it.
Did COVID Affect North American Waterfowl Management?
Ramsey Russell: Has COVID put a stick in your spokes, too?
Paul Link: It has. Not nearly as bad as a lot of my other colleagues. We were right in the middle blue-winged teal trapping season for another research project that we’ve been working on. We’ve spent eight years on that project, primarily looking at avian influenza and how that disease has moved up and down the North American and South American continent. We were able to do our fieldwork. It certainly changed how we do things. We had a lot of social distancing issues to deal with. Group sizes of ten or fewer. We were able to do it. We typically have a lot of college students come down to Louisiana for spring break and help throughout the weekends, trapping, but we were able to keep working and do it. Can’t say the same for a lot of the other states in our flyway, right now. There’s still folks that aren’t allowed back to work. There’s a lot of pre-season duck banding that’s not happening this year.
Obviously, the BPOP, Breeding Population Survey, was cancelled. Lots of wood duck and Canada goose banding operations have been cancelled. It’s interesting times. Our meetings aren’t happening at all, but you wouldn’t think of fieldwork, something like going out and doing a Canada goose drive for banding— You wouldn’t think that would be something that would fall apart due to some of these COVID guidelines, but, unfortunately, there are. There’s a lot of ramifications that I don’t think any of us, a year ago, could have ever foreseen.
Ramsey Russell: Nobody could have seen this, as recently as February or even March, I don’t think. You and I were supposed to get together back in the fall. I was going to participate in some of your specklebelly banding, and our calendars didn’t line up. Then I was going to get to come down here to Louisiana and do some blue-wings. I love blue-winged teal, and I know you’re very active in that. Because of COVID, you couldn’t even get into Louisiana; let alone the group sizes and all those limitations. But here we are. It’s June, and here we are in Louisiana.
Who is Louisiana Waterfowl Biologist Paul Link?
Ramsey Russell: Firstly, Paul, who are you? You’re not from Louisiana.
Paul Link: Nope. I’m from North Dakota. I came to Louisiana about fifteen years ago for grad school at LSU and ended up falling in love with the place. Being a waterfowl person from day one at birth and growing up in the heart of the prairie pothole region in North Dakota— Obviously, my intent at the time was to come down here and see the other side of the flyway, where the birds spent the winter. Obviously, I fell in love with a lot of the aspects of Louisiana. Sportsman’s Paradise. I’ll never forget the first time I did my graduate work on mallards in southwest Louisiana. At the time, the technology was VHF transmitters, which are just a radio transmitter. You have to actually go find the birds. One of those life-changing moments that I had was coming out of the Lake Charles airport in a little Cessna, climbing up to altitude to go look for lost geese, and seeing that marsh in front of me. As you climb up a thousand, two thousand feet, you see this expansive marsh, 35 miles of marsh in between Lake Charles and the Gulf of Mexico. Looking back to the East, as far as the eye can see, there were these big, beautiful, lush wetlands in November that were just full of ducks. Meanwhile, in my home state, all my buddies are ice fishing already and getting the snowmobiles out. This is, obviously, the toughest time of the year for me, these next few months. Dealing with Louisiana hurricane season and the heat and humidity, but, for most of the year, this is a pretty good place to be if you like ducks.
Ramsey Russell: And you grew up duck hunting.
Paul Link: Oh, yeah.
Ramsey Russell: So you’re what I call a hook-and-bullet biologist. That’s what led you down this path.
Paul Link: Yeah, absolutely.
Ramsey Russell: The only thing I do not like at all about Louisiana is I-10. That’s it. Everything else is, like you say, Sportsman’s Paradise. The food’s good. The people are fun. I even like LSU fans. I ain’t gonna lie to you, man. They’re the funnest people I’ve ever been around.
Louisiana Specklebellies (White-fronted Geese)
Ramsey Russell: Anyway, you mentioned Lake Charles, Louisiana and I’ve always marveled that so many name-brand, or recognizable brand, specklebelly calls come from that region. Having hunted down there a few times; it’s a religion. They duck hunt in Louisiana, but specklebellies are their religion. I’d say it exceeds Catholicism for Louisiana. It’s specklebellies. I was down hunting somewhere around Lacassine one time with Bill Daniels, actually, when I heard this story that, in the past, 80% of the mid-continent population of specklebellies used to overwinter in that region, and now just a fraction of those do. They say the numbers are the same, but the relative percent is way different. What’s going on?
Paul Link: Well, you first need to understand the preface that we have one index on white-fronted populations in Louisiana. It’s our midwinter count. It’s just one snapshot. First week in January. It’s the only time we count them. One thing I’ve learned with this project—being out, boots on the ground, literally every day that I can get away from work from about the tenth of October until the last one leaves in March—is that we still get a ton of white-fronts here. I know our numbers—and, perhaps, the trajectory—wouldn’t be the same if we did an early-November count. Then, having seen the migration data, seeing what these geese do— A lot of them get up on the Saskatchewan prairies in September and October, and they come. They overfly all the mid-latitude states, and they come here.
Oftentimes—the first couple years of our work, especially—we had a tremendous opening day effect where there was lots of gun pressure, and the birds moved. We have zone boundaries where geese don’t have to travel very far to get out of the Louisiana Coastal Zone and into an area that’s not being hunted. Then all kinds of other factors came into play with increasing habitat, coming on the landscape later throughout the winter, and the birds actually trickling further back North as winter progresses. It was a really complicated thing to try to wrap my head around at the beginning of the study, that I could go out mid-October in southwest Louisiana and see eighty thousand white-fronts in one field, on one roost, knowing that we’ll fly the entire state the first week of January and not count a hundred thousand throughout the entire state.
That was one of the more critical things for me to wrap my head around, that Louisiana is still critically important for white-fronts at a time of the year when there’s not much other real estate. There aren’t any other options for a lot of these white-fronted geese when they pick up and leave. From the Dakotas on down, they’re coming here. Seeing what’s going on in the southwest landscape— There’s second-crop rice coming off the fields, there’s combines rolling everywhere, and it’s like the buffet table. You can watch the combines. Once you find early water, it’s typically an old teal pump-off that people teal hunt. They’ll leave the water on it, and it just evaporates. If there’s some water remaining, that’s going to be the central hub for a roost.
Then, the white-fronts are just chasing combines when they get here. The landscape is pretty arid. There’s not a lot of options. There’s a lot of standing green rice, and those birds are just bouncing back and forth from rice field to rice field, cleaning up what little waste rice comes out of the back of a combine. You have to understand that, while our numbers on paper look pretty bad, Louisiana is still critically important. White-fronts are still coming here; we’re just not out there counting them when the majority are here. At least as I see it, through the windshield of the truck, we’re not out there on the landscape when it’s most critical for those geese, when they’re first showing up down here.
Mid-Continental Population of Specklebellies (White-fronted Geese)
Mid-Continental Specklebellies (White-fronts) Staging in Canada
Ramsey Russell: I know you travel and do a lot of activities around. Have you ever been to the South Saskatchewan River where all those birds stage in the fall?
Paul Link: Yeah. That’s been one of the more interesting things of this project, is the Peace River Valley. Pretty historic place. It’s one of the first agricultural regions that a lot of those North Slope, Northwest Territory birds stop in. It’s the first barley fields that those birds see after coming across the boreal. So, yeah, I’ve had boots on the ground. I’ve been up there hunting a few times, myself. It’s been pretty eye-opening, seeing the scale at which these birds move across the continent. We’re 5,400 miles away from where a lot of those geese are right now. As we’re sitting here talking today, there’s birds that I caught here that are over 5,000 miles away from here.
Ramsey Russell: Isn’t that amazing? Just looking at a map of the migration, it’s like you’ve got three subspecies of greater white-fronted goose up in the Arctic. They form like an hourglass because they all convene right there around the Alberta-Saskatchewan political boundary. Then they start to spread back out; primarily the mid-continent population, the Central and Mississippi Flyways, but also a little over in the Pacific. It’s interesting to me, as someone that can remember shooting five snow geese back in the day— Now, it’s just a bunch of them. They got a little out of hand. The limit in Louisiana is two; Arkansas, three; but there’s already some of the Pacific populations where the limits are ten in California, ten in Idaho. What I’m seeing, Paul—and maybe you can shed some light on this—is that there’s more white-fronts, now, in Arkansas, and I’m even hearing reports of them being hunted up in Illinois. Places that, historically, they didn’t overwinter.
Mid-Continental Specklebelly (White-fronted Goose) Population
Ramsey Russell: So is the wintering Louisiana specklebelly population getting bigger or smaller?
Paul Link: Yeah. We’re up around a million white-fronted geese, right now, in the mid-continent population. It annually fluctuates. We’re on two pretty bad production years in a row, here. It’s looking like this summer is going to be a little better for them, but the population still hovers around 800,000 to 1.1 million. The population is doing incredibly well overall. That’s the reason for the expansion of the opportunities, offering more days and more geese. They’re doing well, range-wide, across North America.
Paul Link’s Louisiana Specklebelly (White-fronted Goose) Research
That’s one of the things I really like about catching and doing research, is the catching part. It’s catch-and-release hunting.
Paul Link: Basically, we’re going to put together the life cycle, the ecology, of mid-continent white-fronts in order to tie all these little pieces together with wintering habitat selection and cross-seasonal effects… That’s one of the lowest-hanging fruits from this project. Identifying the spatial and temporal scale of preferred habitats, the availability of it on the landscape, and then the selection of those Louisiana fields and replicating it across the landscape and providing more of that.
Ramsey Russell: Can you speak a little bit about your research? Because that’s what I really like to hear a lot about. You work for the state of Louisiana as a biologist, but, several years ago, you also started working more in a privately-funded capacity?
Paul Link: Yeah. That’s a kind of a difficult, touchy subject to explain. I’m an administrator, essentially, here at Wildlife and Fisheries. I kind of oversee a habitat-based wetland program, but, obviously, nobody gets into—or shouldn’t get into—this profession to sit in the office all day. It’s what got me into this. Duck banding was the thing that literally changed my life. Talking back with my folks when I was a kid, I was going to be a hunting guide. I figured that’d be the best way to watch as many sunrises as possible, growing up, was to be a guide. But, unfortunately, I don’t have the people skills. I learned pretty early on that I couldn’t handle a lot of the issues that those types have to deal with every day.
One of those life-changing moments— My dad found out about a duck-banding operation at a refuge in North Central, North Dakota, and he called the manager. He said, “Yeah, come on.” It was one of those moments—sitting there, watching the world come alive, watching ducks come running up a bank to a rocket net site platform, and all the chaos that ensued; looking across a net full of ducks—that, holy crap, you can get paid to do this? Unfortunately, I haven’t found that position, a paying position, but I’m at a unique position here. Administratively, I can get my job done, and then, in my free time—oftentimes with the department vehicles and support through federal aid grants and everything—I’m able to do a lot of fieldwork.
We talked about black-bellied whistling duck banding; I’ve banded tens of thousands of black-bellied whistling ducks over the last few years, in my personal time, with an all-volunteer crew of people. As this little—you can jokingly call it my hobby science projects—as they’ve expanded, I’ve taken a lot of capacities and networks with landowners and folks that are interested in answering questions that maybe aren’t necessarily a priority of the flyway or the state. I’ve been able to figure out how to walk that fine line between Paul Link, North American Waterfowl Management Plan Coordinator, and Paul Link, hobby scientist, where we can separate those two job functions. On my personal time and, oftentimes—depending on the project—I have to take my own pickup and make sure I’m not using any department resources.
I’m afforded a lot of opportunities, with the freedom that I have with the administration here. A lot of the projects I’m working on, while they’re not maybe the highest priority of the department, there’s a mutual interest in what’s going on. Especially for species like black-bellied ducks that appear to be doing well, but that we don’t have any real good data for population trends or management for. That’s kind of where the white-fronted goose project started. A lot of these same guys that I’d be trapping wood ducks or mottled ducks on their properties would be asking me, “What’s going on with the specklebellies?” Quite frankly, I didn’t know. We’re going through this rapid technology change. The technology for these tracking devices— Literally, every year it’s improved almost another order of magnitude. Five years ago, a couple of really passionate specklebelly hunters in southwest Louisiana asked what it would take to put some of these tracking devices on geese and find out where they’re going, what they’re doing, how long they’re staying there. All their migration information, breeding success. You can get all that information. They basically told me to throw some numbers at them and let them know how much money they needed to raise to get a project up and running. The next summer, we were off and running. We put eleven transmitters out on birds. We figured out how to catch them. That was a big hurdle.
Historically, all the white-fronts are captured in July and August, in the Arctic, when they’re flightless. They are a bird that demands your respect. They are incredibly smart, especially by the time they get down here. The fields that they use are typically mudflats or barren fields, and they have incredible vision, incredible senses. I’ve trapped sandhill cranes along the Nebraska Platte River, for a couple of springs, with Dave Brandt and Northern Prairie. At the time, I thought sandhill cranes were the epitome of capturing wild birds. That was the toughest species I’d ever caught. We’d bury our nets and rake the det cord down with a screwdriver across the prairie grass, hiding everything. Put cow patties over the top of the launchers and rockets, and used stuffer decoys. Basically, just hide off in brush lines and rocket netted over the top of stuffer decoys. It was incredibly fun. Still the most fun two months of my life I’ve ever had was trapping sandhill cranes.
The white-fronts kind of took that to a whole ‘nother level. They’d never been flighted. White-fronts hadn’t been captured in appreciable numbers in fifty years. Trying to figure out how to catch them down here, knowing that we could go to the Arctic and we could deploy some transmitters, but only 18% of them, theoretically, would show up down here. When you’re looking at a $3,000 transmitter, we knew we had to get them out here. We had to catch these geese that were coming here. That’s one of the things I really like about catching and doing research, is the catching part. It’s catch-and-release hunting. It’s pretty hard to kill some of these geese, to get them within shotgun range, but it’s a whole ‘nother level to get them alive. To get your hands on them and be able to let them go when you’re done. I played around; built a lot of stuff; went through a lot of different net designs trying to figure out how we could throw as big a net as possible, as far as we could, as fast as we could. Tore a lot of stuff up, blew a lot of boxes up. It was a pretty substantial learning curve, but we ended up catching a bunch of birds that first year. Now, we’re getting ready to go into year six.
Ramsey Russell: Year six. I was just fixing to ask how long you’ve been doing that.
Paul Link: Yeah. In fact, we’re bringing on a PhD student and a post-doc this year. We’re expanding our network of collaborators. With Dr. Mitch Weegman at Missouri, we’re going to bring on two pretty powerful folks to help analyze all this stuff. Basically, we’re going to put together the life cycle, the ecology, of mid-continent white-fronts in order to tie all these little pieces together with wintering habitat selection and cross-seasonal effects. We have these theories right now, this many years into the project, that perhaps wintering habitat use, and the winter body condition, has an influence on a white-front’s subsequent spring and summer production. If these birds, down here in the southwest—there’s a lot of disturbance going on down there.
These transmitters have a triaxial accelerometer built on board. So if this is the transmitter, we can tell what it’s doing on that X, Y, and Z axis. We know if the goose is flying, if it’s sleeping, if it’s walking, if it’s tipping and dipping, if it’s preening. We can get all that information, and so you can put together an energetics model of the geese. So you not only know that they’re at this coordinate in this field—and you can go in and identify it as being second-crop rice with ten-inch stubble and a four-inch flood—but then you can also tell what the bird is doing. Their proportionate time spent in each of those habitats. We can then compare and contrast regions within the state and among states to see if a white-front in southwest Louisiana is burning more energy than a white-front in eastern Arkansas. That’s one of the things that we launched into last year, with that expansion of the project into Arkansas with a bunch of other private supporters. If those birds up there are acting and behaving differently, if they’re getting less disturbance and there’s more forage, there could be longer-term population level effects for where a bird chooses to winter. That’s obviously a really complicated thing. Then it gets even further complicated when you’re looking at that same individual for years. That’s another thing that this technology has really enabled us to do, is look at an individual bird across multiple years to see what changes.
What influences where they’re wintering? What influences their fall migration dates? We’ve had birds that we’ve marked down here that have spent the whole winter, have gone offline in the Arctic, and the next winter they go to Arkansas for a couple weeks and then end up in Indiana and Illinois for the entire winter. Why would a bird that was down here in October of the year before never come even close to Louisiana again? Having that same bird making multiple migrations can help to tie in pieces and maybe find some of those explanatory variables for why that geese chose to trickle North and hang out with the Canadas and the snows up North.
At this point, five years into the research, we’ve basically got a few answers about the specific habitat types, the arrival dates, the spring departures. We’ve got a great data set of breeding ecology work. Now we’re trying to look at the fidelity and winter philopatry. It takes more individuals and more years. That’s why we’re pretty excited about this recent expansion to go on for another three years of deployments. These units are scheduled to last between two and three years. On our white-fronted geese that are coming up on two and half years of age, the transmitters are still doing really well. These things have a battery, and batteries have a shelf life to them based on the number of recharge cycles, but they’re still going strong. That’s really encouraging. The geese have high survival. Not a lot of people are targeting our collared geese.
On Not Shooting White-fronted Geese with Collar Transmitters
Ramsey Russell: I know some guys that would unfortunately target them if they saw them coming into the decoys.
Paul Link: Yeah. I’ve got a number of folks, that we’ve talked about earlier, that are managing specifically for them. A lot of them have supported the project monetarily and with access to their property for trapping. One of the guys in southwest Louisiana is an incredible caller. He’s passed on five collared white-fronts that he’s had over the decoys in shotgun range. He’s called off his sports from pulling the trigger on those birds. Then another guy gave me a report, one day, that he had five specks come in, and they shot everything except the collared bird. That was kind of a neat experience, with that bird and her family group. They were all banded, interestingly enough. The four geese that were flying with her were all banded. We saw the effects of what happened when she lost all of her family. She did some really bizarre movements for a couple days, but, amazingly enough, settled right back into the same pattern. She came right back to the same farm.
I’ve got two white-fronted geese, that are on their third year of migration, that nest in the same nest bowl in the North Slope of Alaska and come to the same farm just south of Gueydan, Louisiana.
Paul Link: Since then, we’ve seen a number of other instances where a white-front has made just super erratic movements like that, and we always wonder if it’s a similar type of thing. Some of these birds literally roost on the same spot, on the same farm, year after year after year. I’ve got two geese, that are on their third year of migration, that nest in the same nest bowl in the North Slope of Alaska and come to the same farm just south of Gueydan, Louisiana.
Ramsey Russell: Not just the same parish; the same farm.
Paul Link: The same farm. The same field. We’ve ground-truthed our habitats for three years, and a lot of that was going out and knocking on doors and asking farmers— If we couldn’t see a field that birds were in, we did face-to-face interviews. We got farm records, and we talked to these guys. We wanted to know: If they’re in this field, what did you do to that field? That’s the management implications behind all of this. Me, the simple-minded, muddy boot biologist— If they’re selecting this field, and there’s only 1% of that in the landscape, and a lot of these other guys that are trying to manage for white-fronts don’t know that that’s what’s preferred, then they can’t offer it to them. That’s one of the lowest-hanging fruits from this project. Identifying the spatial and temporal scale of preferred habitats, the availability of it on the landscape, and then the selection of those fields and replicating it across the landscape and providing more of that. I have no doubt that it’s a habitat issue that’s driving most of our decline here. There’s been a lot of changes in rice agriculture here, just in the time that I’ve been here.
What Habitat Changes Drive Number of Specklebelly (White-fronted Geese) and Other Waterfowl Wintering in Louisiana?
I have no doubt that it’s a habitat issue that’s driving most of our decline here. There’s been a lot of changes in rice agriculture here, just in the time that I’ve been here…When [you’re flying aerial surveys] you’re coming across the marsh and you hit the agricultural transition and you’re in rice, you can almost catch your breath. You’re looking up ahead, and you can see the rice coming, and things are going to slow down. You’re going to have time to breathe. Then, when you get up on a crawfish pond—especially crawfish fields that have traps, that have the boat runs that are clearly identified—it’s a ghost town. There aren’t ducks. There aren’t geese. There aren’t water birds.
Ramsey Russell: Been a lot of changes in habitat in all. Not just in Louisiana, but up and down the Mississippi Flyway and in the world at large. The first thing I think of when I think of this part of Louisiana is of the Gulf Coast issues going on that we hear a lot about. The coastal erosion, the sinking land, however they describe the lower Mississippi Delta. I think of how the habitat changed initially from marsh, or semi-permanent marsh, to rice. Then there’s been other changes. Crawfish, for example. That used to be a few folks who went out and drug ditches and caught crawfish, back in the day. It is a multi-billion dollar industry now, and waterfowl eat those little crawfish when they’re babies. What specifically are you seeing? What are you thinking so far, five years into this?
Paul Link: Well, that’s the million dollar question. With the changes in agriculture, with the rice varieties, but also with the way rice is farmed. When I came down here fifteen years ago, everybody was water seeding. Put a flood up, water work a field, fly the rice in, pull the water off, pulse the water back on. Traditional heirloom-variety rice crops. Then we came into the genetically-modified stuff, the Clearfield varieties. Dry-ground farming, drilling your crop in, not bringing the water on and off, as historically. There’s just been a ton of changes in the way rice is farmed. Aquaculture acreage, as you mentioned, has skyrocketed here. In a lot of cases, it’s for the better. There’s a ton of rice farmers out there that wouldn’t be in business right now if it wasn’t for the rice/crawfish aquaculture. They really can’t do one without the other in a lot of instances. It’s the cash crop that keeps them on the land, that keeps them profitable. But, obviously, crawfish is not a preferred white-fronted goose habitat. They’re typically flooded up pretty deep. Very deep.
Ramsey Russell: You were saying earlier that they like the shallower water to where just their feet get wet.
Paul Link: Yeah. They will roost in a crawfish field, but, typically, the crawfishermen want the substrate. They want that stubble. They’re putting cannons and lasers and flags, all kinds of deterrents, out there to keep waterfowl out of there. As well as, obviously, shooting them if they have to.
Ramsey Russell: Aside from specks, do you think those practices would affect duck utilization of those habitats? I know there’s some groups down in that part of the world that are all up in arms about corn up in Missouri, but there could be other things going on right there in their backyard.
Paul Link: Absolutely. It’s the same thing. When we’re flying aerial surveys, Larry Reynolds, who’s been doing this longer than I have, always talks when he’s coming off those transitions— We’ve got North-South transect lines, and when you’re coming across the marsh and you hit the agricultural transition and you’re in rice, you can almost catch your breath. You’re looking up ahead, and you can see the rice coming, and things are going to slow down. You’re going to have time to breathe. Then, when you get up on a crawfish pond—especially crawfish fields that have traps, that have the boat runs that are clearly identified—it’s a ghost town. There aren’t ducks. There aren’t geese. There aren’t water birds. There’s nothing in most of these fields. Again, crawfish is better than nothing. It’s better than sugar cane for waterfowl. It’s one of those double-edged swords.
Ramsey Russell: Isn’t there a lot of sugar cane in that part of Louisiana?
Paul Link: It’s grown exponentially.
Ramsey Russell: Has it capped out, do you think, or is it still expanding?
Paul Link: I think it’s probably still expanding.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. I do like crawfish, but you’ve made me start feeling guilty about eating it as much as I do.
Paul Link: I still eat it, too. Like I say, I’m good friends with a lot of those rice farmers, and it’s keeping them in business. If it wasn’t for the ability to crawfish on some of their acreage, or half of their acreage, they couldn’t keep the farm.
Ramsey Russell: Have they always ratoon cropped, or second-cropped, rice in this part of the world?
Paul Link: Yep.
Ramsey Russell: That’s always happened, and now they’re finding out that they can bring in this aquaculture component as a third crop, really. That’s how they’re able to remain profitable and stay in business.
Specklebelly (White-fronted Goose) Behaviors Observed
Specklebelly (White-fronted Goose) Migrational Scale
Ramsey Russell: I follow you on Instagram, and I’m going to be sure that you share that with other folks listening, because they’ll find your information interesting. What are some of the crazy things you’ve seen doing these banding and, especially, these geo-locator studies?
Paul Link: Well, just the scale at which these geese can move across the country is probably the most eye-opening thing to me. We’ve got white-fronted geese that, when they come off the Arctic in the summer—especially those Alaska birds in the fall and, more impressively, in the spring—when they’re sitting there at the Peace River in Alberta, the gamble that they’re preparing— I don’t think a lot of people can grasp the gamble that that bird is making. They’re standing there literally on the ice line. They’ve been fighting that ice getting North, which, physiologically, they often struggle with that. They show up down here, and it’s still 95°. That’s a white-front that you would think doesn’t like the cold. Yet in the spring, they are literally chomping at the bit to get back to the Arctic. They want their nest bowl. They want to be there first. They want to make sure they get the best spot. Sitting there looking at these movements, watching those birds stage up, and then, a year or two later, understanding the physiological consequences to their decision on when we go, when we leave here— They leave not knowing what the ten day forecast is 1,100 miles away, where they’re going. When they leave that Peace River, it’s rocks, trees, and ice. Those birds show up. They’ve got two weeks of standing on the ice when they get there. Every year. Best case scenario, they have to stand there for two weeks. There’s not going to be any green-up. There’s no food. There’s nothing.
When they take off, they’re carrying what they can on them in the form of their fat that they’ve piled back up from eating waste grains on the prairies again. They’re hinging on that. They’re weighing the cost of staying there and fattening up for a few extra days, versus another white-front getting to the choicest habitat ahead of them. They’re weighing all that stuff and seeing the consequences. We’ve had a couple bad years in a row for production. Birds get up there—and it’s not bad if it’s cold, if the ice-out is delayed—but if they get to initiating a nest and then they have a blizzard and can’t stay on their eggs, they’ll lose them. They have to keep them, once they start incubating.
Seeing those trade-offs, those huge decisions that those geese are making, and the ferocity of the climate that those things are facing. These things have on-board weather collection devices on them where they can get percent cloud cover and temperature and barometric pressure and wind speed and everything. You see what these birds are doing. When they leave Alberta, they don’t get above freezing for thirty days, a lot of years. Knowing that there’s no moisture. There’s no green vegetation. They’re on their own from the time they leave. They’re capital breeders, so their females are going to have to lay a heavy clutch of eggs. She’s going to lose a ton of weight.
The gamble that they make— To me, that’s the most fascinating thing. Then, conversely, when they’re coming back through the prairies— The Saskatchewan and Alberta prairies in September and October is a marvelous place. There’s food everywhere. The lakes that they roost on are about as permanent as they come. There’s always going to be a big lake, the Quills or another famous staging area. It’s stable. It’s dependable. The crops have changed quite a bit over the last twenty years, but—
Ramsey Russell: A lot of canola.
Paul Link: Yeah. The peas and barleys. Peas are doing all right in a lot of places, but the barley is not. That’s obviously one of their preferred items, but they leave all that. Most of them leave that in a time of plenty, and they come down here. I’ve often wondered why that is. They’re leaving the land of milk and honey.
Specklebelly (White-fronted Goose) Migrational Timing
Ramsey Russell: Do you see, and does your data after five years support—? Because I’ve always thought of specks as a photoperiod migrator. It’s like an internal part of their calendars says, “Time to go.”
Paul Link: Yeah, that’s changed a lot. As a kid growing up in central North Dakota where I did, right on the Missouri River, I remember our waterfall openers. If you didn’t kill a white-front in North Dakota on opening weekend, you’d never see or hear another one. I remember being out scouting and hearing birds in the middle of the night; walking outside or sleeping with the windows open at night, and hearing specks going overhead in September. Never see a speck. From November first on, never did you see a speck up there. Now, for the last five years, I’ve killed specks up there when I go back to hunt. They’re with the western prairie Canadas well after ice-up, in the snow. Things are definitely changing. There are specks up there that stay late. They wait until the last throw of winter when the snow gets too deep to forage through. Then, seeing these geese that are wintering in Illinois and Indiana the last few years—that’s a trend that we’ve had every year. There’s been one to four geese that we marked down here that, as soon as they get here, it seems like they turn around and start trickling their way back North. Some of them, even before our hunting seasons even open. It’s hard to explain.
Does Improved Agricultural Harvest Efficiency Affect Specklebelly (White-fronted Goose) Feeding Patterns?
Ramsey Russell: Well, could that be a function of increased population? Maybe there’s more birds, so there’s a longer window of opportunity that they’re nesting, so you’ve got different stages of age classes or something when it’s time to migrate South? Could it be that?
Paul Link: Yeah. I’m guessing it’s probably food. These combines, they’re getting better and better every year. I’ve gone out behind a combine in a field. Geese— If they start feeding in a field in the morning, they won’t hit it again. That’s it. They’ll have it eaten out by the end of the day. If they get in there at three in the afternoon, there’s about a 50/50 chance that they’ll come back and hit it again the next morning. They’ll eat a field out in a day. These are dry fields. Farmers have pulled the water off. It’s ratoon crop, and you can see individual seeds laying on the ground. Those white-fronts—I’m sure you’ve watched them—get shoulder-to-shoulder, and they’re basically running. Birds at the back of the group, they’ll get up and fly twenty yards ahead.
Ramsey Russell: Like a bunch of little Hoover vacuums combing the field.
Paul Link: Exactly. At that time of the year, rice farming, and farming in general, has gotten clean. These rice fields are clean, clean, clean. There’s nothing in them. 25 years ago, 50 years ago—from talking with a lot of these guys—farming was dirty. There were all kinds of moist-soil plants in amongst all these fields, and there was more food. The combine technology— A lot came out the back of the combine if you didn’t have your screen set right, but now everything is so clean. There’s so little waste rice coming out, and they’re so efficient. There’s so few weeds. There’s so few seeds. There’s not a lot else on the landscape for those white-fronted geese until we start getting some green-up again in those fields.
Ramsey Russell: Then what would be some of the primary plants? Henbit? What would be some of the plants they’re hitting, because I was wondering. It’s not just grain. It’s whatever comes next, the little green-up.
Paul Link: Yeah. They make a pretty stark change, and that’s one of the things our ground-truthing data really showed. They’ll switch to grazing midway through the winter, and it depends on the temps and the moisture and everything. Especially the bean fields and the idle ag fields. The cattlemen don’t really like it, but when guys are starting to fertilize the rye pastures in December and January— Those white-fronted geese will do that. We can see it on the sensor data that I was telling you about earlier, where you can tell what the birds are doing. Early in the fall, they start out doing two-a-days, where they’re going out feeding in the combine tracks in the morning; going back to the water, to the roost, through the heat of the day; and then flying back out in the evening.
They do that for a long time. It’s 95°, so they’re going back for a drink if there isn’t water in the combine tracks of the rice fields. Then at some point, usually midwinter December or so, they switch to grazing. They’re herbivores. They’re just out clipping shoots and various things. At that point, they’re grazing ten hours of the day. If there’s twelve hours of daylight, with their activity on that sensor data, you can see that they’re working. They’re eating bushels of food. Not getting a lot of energy out of it, but that’s what’s available, so that’s what they’re eating.
Does Hunting Pressure on Specklebellies (White-fronted Geese) Changes in Louisiana?
By Sunday afternoon of opening weekend, all of those [marked] white-fronted geese had either left Louisiana or had left the Coastal Zone. Every single one of them, that we marked in the Coastal Zone had left that zone within eighteen hours [of hard opening mornings where duck and goose opened on the same date]. Most importantly, they didn’t come back all winter long.
Ramsey Russell: A changing landscape, which will always continue to change. Does hunting, or hunting pressure, have a role in any of these changes? Can you see it in some of the geo-data? Can you see the role of hunting pressure on bird movement?
Paul Link: Yeah. The first two years of this project, we had what I’ve termed “hard opening weekends,” where our coastal duck and goose season opened on the same date. It’s World War III. I’ll never forget my first winter down here. I was staying in a bunkhouse at Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge. We’d been tracking all night, getting our mallards located, and then we’d get back out in the morning and start ground tracking. I’d get a missing bird list together, and I’d go to the airport and get an assessment, and we’d fly. We’d do that every day and night that the weather allowed.
Well, that opening day— I’ll never forget what that sounded like. We were going to sleep in, that morning, and it was like nothing I’d ever heard. I’d grown up in North Dakota, and had travelled in the upper Midwest and into Canada, hunting, but I’d never heard anything like that before. There wasn’t three seconds where there wasn’t gunfire, a volley of gunfire, for hours. That was a big deal for those geese. The duck and goose hunters are pretty distinct. A duck hunter will shoot a speck 100% of the time, provided the opportunity, but the 15% of our waterfowl hunters that identify as a goose hunter are very different from the duck hunters. Most of them are hunting dry fields. They’re hunting with airbrushed, custom, full-body decoys in blinds that you can’t spot from fifty yards. They tell you, “Step here. Step here. Step here.” They’re picking their spent hulls up like they’re cognizant of everything. These are the most efficient killers.
Ramsey Russell: The times I’ve hunted white-fronted geese down around Cameron, it was so densely brushed that you could wear white shrimping boats and an orange jumpsuit. I actually, well into the morning, had to use my phone light to find my box of shells. It was serious.
Paul Link: Yeah. The first two years, that’s the way our zone and boundary worked. We had hard opening mornings where duck and goose opened on the same date, and it was huge. That first year of our project, we put out eleven units as a pilot. We had seven that we marked preseason. By Sunday afternoon of opening weekend, all seven of those white-fronted geese had either left Louisiana or had left the Coastal Zone. Every single one of them, seven of seven, that we marked in the Coastal Zone had left that zone within eighteen hours.
Ramsey Russell: How big is the zone? What does that mean?
Paul Link: Basically, the southern third of the state was in the Coastal Zone.
Most importantly, they didn’t come back all winter long. We had a joke with my texts that first year, that once they crossed I-10, it was over. There was no turning back. Those white-fronted geese never came back.
Ramsey Russell: Where did they go? North?
Paul Link: We had one white-fronted goose that stopped up in the north and northeast MAV, around the south of Monroe. The others white-fronted geese moved up into the eastern Delta.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. Yeah, that’s a pretty good way.
Paul Link: Yeah. Most importantly, they didn’t come back all winter long. We had a joke with my texts that first year, that once they crossed I-10, it was over. There was no turning back. Those white-fronted geese never came back. The second year, we had 24 units. I think we put 11 of them out, and the same thing happened. We lost 8 of 11 birds. They exited the Coastal Zone by Sunday at sunset of opening weekend. Then, unrelated to that, we had the expansion of opportunity for geese that gave us additional days. To give our hunters opportunity for those additional days, we offered two weeks prior to the duck opener, to the Coastal Zone. White-fronted geese season actually opened up well before duck season.
As I mentioned, about 15% of our waterfowl hunters are goose hunters. Most of those guys went out the third year of our project and hunted. Well, thankfully, the 85% of other waterfowl hunters, the duck hunters, weren’t out there yet. The guns started going off in those intensively-managed areas where guys were hunting geese, but the rest of the landscape wasn’t being hunted, so those geese could go figure things out. They could go over and hang out in front of a guy’s duck blind for a few hours while those guys finished hunting. They stayed here. They were kind of like, “Okay, we’ve got this figured out.” Two weeks later, the duck opener comes. By then, they’d figured out where everything was. The guys were going out days before, brushing their duck blinds, throwing their decoys out, and the White-fronts were kind of like, “Okay. Taking notes. We’ve got this. We’ve got this figured out.”
Opening day of duck season came, and they had it all figured out. Hardly lost any more white-fronted geese in the next few years. That was kind of an accident, that we learned. A hunting disturbance— When it happens like that, when everything opens together and everybody’s out there, there aren’t very many safe places for a bird to go locally. They get up in the air. The guns are just going off everywhere, and they’re just like, “We got to go. We got to go somewhere else.” Whereas, when it opened earlier, there weren’t nearly as many guns going off at the same time. They could kind of keep their bearings and find places to ride it out. They had twelve days to figure out the safe places.
Can Providing Sanctuary Improve Specklebelly (White-fronted Goose) Hunting?
Paul Link: Most of these big clubs that are successful, as you know, manage sanctuary on their properties. They have places where they do a much better job at regulating disturbance than the inviolate refuges that agencies and the Fish and Wildlife Service and folks like us may have. They’ll provide a place in the middle of their farm where they just leave the waterfowl alone. That’s theirs. That’s their roost. That’s their sanctuary. People like keeping a big hub of white-fronted geese in the middle of their farms. Obviously, a few of them are going to make mistakes and give you opportunities to see and harvest waterfowl. That was one of the biggest and most informative things that we saw. There’s a potential that we can kind of slowly turn these birds on to the hunting pressure. We’re trying to create a mini refuge program, so to speak. Or we can provide these birds early, dependable water, every year, on a landscape that’s pretty dry, and then keep it disturbance free. So when the guns start going off during hunting season, they kind of know, historically, that, “Hey, we can go to this field, and nobody will mess with us.” Then, obviously, they can go forage from there locally. If they get shot at, they’ll come back. They’ve got to have a safe place to rest. That’s the primary thing with everything I’ve radio marked and tracked down here. They have to have some place that they can go do their thing unmolested.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve heard for years people that are, for lack of a better word, anti-refuge. It doesn’t make sense. Man, waterfowl have got to have somewhere they can go be a duck without getting shot at it. It’s critical. Anywhere in the world you go, they’ve got to have somewhere they can just be a duck and do ducky things and not get shot. I can’t remember if it was you or somebody else telling me a story about banding a speck, one time, that swapped flyways. It was just absolutely gone within weeks. Was that you telling me the story, or somebody else?
Paul Link: No, the California guys, the Dixon guys, that have been marking specks, they have that on occasion. A bird that they mark out in the Central Valley of California will go North and come over to this flyway. Some of them have even —Ross’s geese, in particular—come here one winter, and then stayed back the next. For whatever reason, they just hop flyways.
Ramsey Russell: I see. When those white-fronted geese leave Louisiana, do they skip like a rock up to the Arctic? Or do they just fly?
Paul Link: They hop their way North, primarily. If a bird is still here on the 20th of February, they’ll typically jump to the eastern Dakotas on their way. A lot of them, probably 3/4’s of them—by the first of February, they’re chasing the ice line. They’re on their way. They’re going as far North as they can, and then they’re staging up south of the tree line in Prairie Canada. That’s kind of their hub. This year, it was southeast North Dakota. The way the ice and snow line was, southeast North Dakota had our white-fronted geese for over thirty days, just stacked up there waiting for the snow to melt. But most years, it’s Prairie Canada. Most falls, it’s the same. It’s thirty days from the time they show up. If they get there in late August, it’s usually late September when they come back. So it seems like in thirty days—good, bad, or ugly—they can acquire what they need to make that movement North or South.
Ramsey Russell: That’s crazy. That is absolutely amazing. I’ll tell you, the whole migratory process is just amazing, how those white-fronts will move and do that kind of stuff.
Hunter-related Mortality of Collared Research Specklebellies (White-fronted Geese)
Ramsey Russell: How many of your collared white-fronted geese do get shot? You and your private landowner partners are spending a lot of time and money on your research birds. How many get shot?
Paul Link: It’s about 20%. It’s not unreasonable. Our annual estimates from harvest are around 85% or so survival, 10-12% for hunting mortality. So it’s higher, but, obviously, these things are wearing a collar. They’re uncoated. Ours are gray. Some people put brown on, but we try to make them as cryptic as we can so they’re hard to see. Every year, I’ll have one or two that get shot off-roads. They’re either not picked up or discarded. We had one shot in Arkansas this spring, three days after the goose season closed. The guy admitted what he did. He’s a lifelong hunter. He saw it, didn’t know what it was, and made a series of bad decisions. We got the collar back from him. Most people are pretty good about it. They understand what we’re trying to do.
Ramsey Russell: The geo-marker is in the collar, not the leg?
Paul Link: Correct. The collars we’re using, they’re uncoated. They have three solar panels on them. It’s all incorporated into the collar. It’s a pretty smooth device. We also band them.
Private landowners that I’ve spoken to over the past few months are farming, but they’re laying aside some pretty significant private contributions into habitat, into some of these rest areas Paul is talking about. Now, they’re coming in and digging elbow-deep in their own pockets and funding these expensive tracking collars they’re putting on these white-fronted geese, too.
Ramsey Russell: One thing I wanted to bear out to people listening, that really impressed me about what he calls his hobby experiments, is that it’s privately funded. It’s a lot of private landowners in southwest Louisiana and parts of Arkansas, probably elsewhere. Clubs and landowners that just are digging elbow-deep into their own pockets and funding this research. I know the state and federal government is also doing some activities along with him, but I just wanted to bear out— We always hear about the importance of hunting in conservation, hunters as conservationists. But, man, this is, to me, an extreme level. A lot of these private landowners that I’ve spoken to over the past few months are farming, but they’re laying aside some pretty significant private contributions into habitat, into some of these rest areas Paul is talking about. Now, they’re coming in and digging elbow-deep in their own pockets and funding these expensive trackers they’re putting on these white-fronts, too. Paul, where do you go from here? After five years, what questions do you want to answer? What directions have you started taking now, after five years of getting your bearings on all this?
The next big thing for us now, to look at both the differences in the regions that these white-fronted geese are wintering and the habitat selection. Looking at what consequences that has on other, subsequent, vital rates. Does where a white-front chooses to winter have an effect on its breeding success five months later? That’s the kind of information that this technology is finally allowing us to look at.
Paul Link: Well, like we spoke about prior to starting the podcast, the cross-seasonal effects. That’s kind of the next big thing for us now, to look at both the differences in the regions that these white-fronted geese are wintering and the habitat selection. Looking at what consequences that has on other, subsequent, vital rates. Does where a white-front chooses to winter have an effect on its breeding success five months later? That’s the kind of information that this technology is finally allowing us to look at. To look at the same individual white-fronted goose, theoretically, up to three breeding seasons. To see, say, if she winters in southwest Louisiana in year one, does this on her spring migration, goes up and nests in the Arctic with— We can tell, based on their movements, whether they’re successful in nesting. We don’t know recruitment unless we would go get a visual on that bird after she shows back up on the prairies, but there’s too many variables there with loss of young after fledging. Then in year two, if she chooses to winter in a different region, if she has a different spring migration strategy and a different subsequent breeding effort; basically, trying to tie in those different cross-seasonal effects with fall staging areas, wintering areas, spring migration, and subsequent reproduction.
We know for almost all waterfowl species that the most critical time period, the most critical season, is that breeding season window. That’s kind of where we’re headed now; answering these complicated questions that require longevity. You need a unit to last multiple breeding seasons to answer those types of questions. Some white-fronted geese mate, and that’s another thing that we don’t really talk about. Some of these white-fronted geese might be three years old, some of them might be seventeen years old. We know this because I’ve recaptured geese before that have been wearing bands. We’ve replaced a number of bands. Nobody really knows what age they are.
We assume that every able-bodied bird in good enough body condition, when they leave Prairie Canada in the spring, is going to go nest. Mitch Weegman’s learning, with the Greenland population of white-fronted geese, that only about a third of those white-fronts even attempt to nest. Even when they’re in the same body condition, year after year, only a third of them even attempt to nest. Now, we think our mid-continent white-fronted geese are different. We think that they’re going to try every year, but the Arctic is a pretty hostile place most years. It really depends on spring weather and ice-out and everything, but we think most of our white-fronted geese go at it. Every year, they attempt to nest. Obviously, they have highly variable success rates and production, but that’s kind of where we’re heading. It’s the really complicated stuff that’s left.
We’ve got good drivers on the biometrics of what a spring and fall migration look like. We know how many kilocalories of energy it takes to make those movements. We know that when they migrate they’re between 850 and 7,000 feet above sea level, and they’re traveling between 55 and 70 miles per hour. We’ve got all that. Now, it’s trying to tie in all these complicated things through a longer period of time. That’s where we’re heading with the project right now.
Ramsey Russell: Paul, I really appreciate your explanations and discussion of your research here on these white-fronted geese, or specklebellies down here in southwest Louisiana and abroad. Is there anything I didn’t ask that you can think to say?
Paul Link: Well, we’ve been from one end of the flyway to the other. I think we’ve pretty well covered white-fronted geese.
Ramsey Russell: We’ve covered it. How can people connect with you on social media?
Paul Link: Well, our Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries foundation has a website. That’s lawff.org/waterfowl. They’ve got some pages that highlight the three projects that we’re currently working on. They’ve got some informational sheets so that you can see what our methods are, what our white-fronted goose research objectives are, the main questions, the need for why we’re doing what we’re doing. Then, also, a donate feature where they can make a donation if they choose to support the projects. Again, that’s been the grassroots of all these projects. A lot of guys are reaching in, pulling out a $20 bill—some of them thousands of —but it’s a grassroots effort. Hunters and sportsmen that are interested in these Louisiana white-fronted geese, that love these specks as much as—or sometimes, in some cases, even more than—me, they’re driving this stuff. They’re helping us collect the data to improve our understanding, to provide better places for these white-fronted geese, and help us try to better understand what’s going on.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a great way to be involved. What is your Instagram account, where you, a lot of times, post some of your data and photos?
Paul Link: It’s @plink_the_bander. That’s my Instagram. I’ve been a little too busy here, the last few weeks, to be updating folks, but this is the most important time of the year. As we sit down here where it’s 95º, those things that those white-fronted geese and those mallards and those blue-wingeds and gadwalls and everything else that we hold near and dear to us— This is the month, now. This is the thirty-day window where everything important to how our falls are going to go is happening. I’ll be trying to get a little more active on there. There’s a lot of cool nesting movements and stuff going on right now. It’s a good opportunity for a lot of folks to think about what’s going on in the off-season with these birds, to kind of keep them dialed-in on what’s important for ducks and geese.
Ramsey Russell: Fantastic. @plink_the_bander. Y’all check it out. He posts some really cool stuff when he’s doing this banding, and I really like some of the map data you post of how that bird’s moving, how far that bird’s moved. It’s just amazing stuff to me. Y’all check out the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Foundation website he told you about if you’d like to become actively involved, yourself, in some of this research. Guys, thank y’all for listening to Duck Season Somewhere podcast. See you next time.