Brain Huber is California Waterfowl Association’s Waterfowl and Wood Duck Program Coordinator. Late one afternoon, Ramsey Russell and he meet across the table at his hunting camp for a mid-blowing discussion about California waterfowl hunting and management. They plan the next morning’s wood duck hunt, too. Why are California’s daily dark goose limits so much higher than in most other parts of the US? What CWA program has produced nearly a million wood ducks since implementation, and to whom does much credit go for its success? What incredible percentage of California’s annual mallard harvest are produced in California (you’ll likely be surprised to learn it)? What other species are produced here? What programs mitigate egg and nest losses in California’s vast agricultural landscape? How’d Huber get into this challenging waterfowl management field? What advice does he have for anyone wanting to be a waterfowl biologist? Great duck hunting doesn’t happen by accident. This Duck Season Somewhere podcast episode is a great behind-the-scenes glimpse of people and events that make California duck hunting happen.
Ramsey Russell: I’m your host Ramsey Russell, join me here to listen to the conversations. Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere. I tell you what, it’s been a stretch. Even here in California it’s been a stretch up every morning driving every day. I have worn out Highway 99 getting up, driving 30 or 45 minutes or an hour, going to different clubs, different duck holes, public lands. It’s been an adventure. Today is still duck season in California and I’m glad to be here. I’m a little tired, but I’m glad to be here. Today’s guest is Brian Huber. He is the California Waterfowl Association[‘s] waterfowl biologist and, for over a decade, the wood duck program coordinator. Like myself, many of y’all may be surprised there’s even wood ducks in California. There are. Brian, how are you today?
Brian Huber: I’m too good Ramsay. How are you doing?
Ramsey Russell: I’m doing fine. You got up this morning and went goose hunting, did you not?
Brian Huber: Yeah, the last 2 days we’ve been chasing geese trying to get them to commit and we’ve gotten a few and it was some tough hunts, but we got a couple. I had my dad out there. He doesn’t get out that much, so we had a real fun hunt yesterday with him.
Ramsey Russell: How did this massive Santa Ana wind help y’all?
Brian Huber: We were hoping for a little bit better results, but the geese were just kind of skirting us pretty hard and we tried to maneuver and change things up and just couldn’t quite get them to do it right.
Why is California’s dark goose limit so high?
The Fish and Wildlife has allowed us higher limits, 10 white fronts a day for the last four or five seasons now.
Ramsey Russell: Waterfowl hunting, in general, is a huge culture out here in California. We’ve talked to several people about that already, but goose hunting is a big deal.
Brian Huber: Yeah, and it’s increased. The limits used to not be like they are now, so with the higher limits that we were seeing people are getting more and more into it and it’s a big money competition now, whoever has the biggest spread and the most decoys. Back when the limit was two, you didn’t see all these people chasing geese. They’d rather go shoot ducks. We’re seeing a big increase in goose hunting and goose hunting activity.
Ramsey Russell: Why do you think the goose limit is so high in the Pacific Flyway, for specklebelly for example?
Brian Huber: Well, their population has been pretty constant and doing good, so the Fish and Wildlife has allowed us higher limits, 10 white fronts a day for the last four or five seasons now. It might be a little more than that. I can’t remember when they bumped it up to 10. When I was a college student at Chico state, the limit was 4. I’d go out there with two dozen full-body decoys and get my four birds and go home. Nobody wanted to put that effort in, but now you get 10 darks, 25 whites. I mean people are going after them hard.
Ramsey Russell: We were talking about that today at lunch. I guess I’m going about 7 or 8 days, consecutively, eating some very good Mexican food in California, sampling it all. We were talking about that today, how now that the limit is 10, no matter what the wind or anything is doing, not every day are the goose gods going to smile and bring in those 10 birds in an hour or two. A lot of guys are grinding it out. They may be shooting longer or whatever they [have] to do, and therefore, it’s a function of pressure.
Brian Huber: Absolutely.
Ramsey Russell: And the birds aren’t responding like they used to. In parts of the world, specks are pretty darn easy to work relative to, say, a snow goose. That’s not the case out here. The ones I’ve seen, you’ve got to play an A game, you’ve got to bring a good game to kill those specks.
Brian Huber: Absolutely. I remember I used to go to the refuge and I’d be the only one on the whole refuge with the old Basin Abomination speck call. Nobody else out there was calling out specks. You’d be the only one out there. Now, every single duck hunter in California has got a speck call on their lanyard, it seems.
What’s the snow goose hunting season like in California?
What’s going on with snow geese here? They seem to be doing well and growing.
Ramsey Russell: Even the ones from Mississippi. I’ve got one. I can’t blow it worth the flip, but I can give it that old two-note “Hey, come check us out over here.” Let’s talk a little bit about the snow geese because we have shot some snow geese. I’ve hunted with some different boys around here and we’ve done well on the white geese. I’ve seen a lot of white goose spreads. I know yesterday Scott Fais down there had a fantastic couple of days of white goose hunting. It’s a big deal out here, but I was talking to Casey Stafford a few days ago and he didn’t understand it. I sure didn’t understand, Brian, why the conservation order of snow geese in the Pacific Flyway is so restrictive relative to the mid-continent population. What’s going on with snow geese here? They seem to be doing well and growing.
Brian Huber: Yeah, they’re doing good.
Ramsey Russell: But you don’t have a long conservation order season.
Brian Huber: No, we don’t. We have a late goose season which is different. It’s more of a kind of a season to kind of keep the birds off the farmer’s crops, but the way I understand it is that the federal regulations have to change to first allow us to have that late conservation season. The push back on that has been that we have a little bit different populations than you see in the Midwest. A lot of our birds are actually coming from Wrangel Island and besides this last year, the population hasn’t been booming like the rest of the snow goose population, so they’ve been kind of holding back on opening up wide open for the conservation season.
Ramsey Russell: What do you mean by Wrangel Island snow geese?
Brian Huber: Wrangel Island, Russia. A lot of snow geese go up there and breed and it’s a really established breeding colony up there on Wrangel Island, where a lot of our birds are North Slope Alaska up there. It’s kind of different groups of birds coming down. The way I understand it is, really, the feds have to allow us that conservation order and that’s an act of legislation that’s never gone through.
California Aleutian goose numbers
More or less, you can use the ratio of collared geese to uncollared geese and that will help you give a population estimate.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right. It’s congressional to get to that point. Well, changing gears on you. A few days ago I was hunting in a zone where the specks are protected. It’s like a square they called it. The specks are protected because of the tule goose, a subspecies of specklebelly. But then somebody said that zone was initially established for the conservation of Aleutian geese which seem to be burgeoning because the limit’s 10 out here on them too.
Brian Huber: It was originally established as an Aleutian goose closure area. Traditionally, the Aleutian geese were using that area a lot more. They really have shifted their distribution in California and they’re more down in the delta or on the north coast. They already had an established zone and that the tule white fronted geese, like you said, it’s a subspecies of the white fronted goose, not regular pacific white fronted goose, but just a subspecies. That zone was already established and the tule geese tend to stay in that zone. The Fish and Game has been marking them with radio collars for a really long time, keeping tabs on their population. That’s how we estimate the tule goose population in California: based on the radio collars. More or less, you can use the ratio of collared geese to uncollared geese and that will help you give a population estimate. All during the winter, they’ll go out and they’ll do surveys and look for those collared geese. You see one collared goose and there were thirty tule geese associated with that collared goose. Now you can use those ratios more or less to estimate their populations.
Ramsey Russell: I see. That’s really the purpose of banding and collars and things. They’re no longer really using leg bands to monitor migration.
Brian Huber: Yeah, it’s more age ratio, sex ratios, and to monitor their populations.
The elusive Tule goose
How would I know for a fact I have a tule goose subspecies instead of a regular specklebelly?
Ramsey Russell: That’s very interesting. I can remember hearing about a tule goose decades ago and talking to people out here, “needle in a haystack, would never kill one.” They almost described it as a colloquial description, just like specklebelly instead of white front. I’ve since learned it’s different and doing a little research online, it looks to me like that subspecies, that breeding population of white front subspecies, is way out in Western Alaska or that part of the Arctic relative to the specks and their migration trajectory is right up in this area.
Brian Huber: What’s amazing is the new technology that we have now. We’ve been putting these GSM, GPS collars on geese. We’ve marked some tule geese with them and watching their migration, we can follow them, how they go. They follow the coast up north. They fly directly over the Pacific Ocean when they come back. It’s absolutely mind blowing. I don’t know what it is, high pressure, low pressure, but whatever, the wind is right, they catch the wind and we had a goose two years ago that started in Alaska and within three days, that bird was in the Sacramento Valley. Right over the Pacific Ocean, there was a short, brief period where he stopped in the ocean and you could see where he was floating in the water for just a couple hours. Then he got up and made his way all the way into the Sacramento Valley. He damn near came right over the Golden Gate Bridge, circled the valley, and came right in.
Ramsey Russell: Now, if I were to be out there speck hunting one day this week, short of them being collared or something like that, how would I know for a fact I have a tule goose subspecies instead of a regular specklebelly?
Brian Huber: There’s some characteristics to look for, but ultimately, you’re going to have to get bill measurements to confirm. There’s kind of a matrix, if you will, of bill size for males and females and you can use that matrix to tell based on the bill length or column length, the column width, and the bill heights. Those will give you the measurements to actually tell for sure if it’s a tule goose. Generally speaking, they’re a larger bird, they’re a darker bird, so they have just a little bit darker color on their head. The bill is really a big giveaway and traditionally they have less barring than your really barred up white fronts that you traditionally see. They’ll have more speckled bars.
Ramsey Russell: What about an eyelid, is there anything to do with their eyelids?
Brian Huber: Some of them have like an eye ring, we’ve seen a yellow eye ring or pink eye ring.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, that’s just some of the stuff I’ve been told and I’ve even seen some pictures of some guys that shoot a dozen in a year or something as they’re speck hunting. They’re notably larger. From the front of their breast through their neck is notably darker. I would almost say it’s like the comparison between a greater snow goose versus a lesser snow goose. It was like, “Wow, that really is bigger, like Baby Huey.”
Brian Huber: When you have them in hand, I’ve dealt with him a little bit and I can look at and be like, “Oh wow, that’s got to be a tule goose.” But trying to observe them like we did for that project, you’re using a spotting scope and binoculars and you’re trying to determine if it’s a Tule goose or not. You can get pretty good at it, but for the general person who’s not looking at them every day like we are, it’s really tough to tell them apart, it really is.
Catching ducks is really like an art form
You find a real sense of purpose in that.
Ramsey Russell: Sure. Tell me this: let’s back up a minute. Who is Brian Huber? Who are you? How did you get here? How did you start duck hunting? Where were you born and raised?
Brian Huber: I was born and raised in Lake Tahoe, California, not too far away. Born and raised up there, went to high school, got out of high school, didn’t really know what to do.
Ramsey Russell: Not a big duck hunting culture in Nevada, but some.
Brian Huber: There’s a bit. Yeah, but I didn’t duck hunt really much at all growing up. Didn’t hunt. We went hunting a little bit, like some squirrel hunting, we definitely shot guns, but we never really “hunted-hunted,” not like not like now. We would go out and shoot stuff but never hunted, never shot a deer, never shot a duck, nothing of that, maybe a couple of rabbits, some squirrel hunting, but nothing serious. Here I am, a high school senior graduating, didn’t know what I was going to do. I applied for a school in Santa Barbara which is really tough to get into for junior college and I got accepted and my parents were like, “Here you go, go down to Santa Barbara, go to school.” I was probably the only kid that went to school down there that didn’t realize how big of a party school it was. This little Tahoe kid coming from the mountains going down to Santa Barbara, I spent some time down there and had a little bit of fun and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. It’s like, you go to college and get all this pressure, you need to pick a major, you need to do this, and it’s if you don’t have a passion, you don’t know what you want to do, it’s hard to focus and nail it down. I didn’t quite get kicked out of school, but it was close, I wasn’t doing much for school and my parents were like, “You’re done, we’re not helping you out anymore,” so I moved back to Tahoe. My good friend was coming down to the Chico area all the time and he was salmon fishing and he’s like, “Man, you got to come down here and salmon fish.” As a kid, we grew up salmon fishing all the time. My parents’ house, there’s a trout stream in the backyard, 20 yards away where you catch really nice rainbows and browns. We started coming down every weekend after work to go salmon fishing. One of my buddies started going to Chico State and he’s like, “Hey man, you could come down here and salmon fish all the time and finish up your school,” and so I started really getting into the salmon and the way my Brian works is, I want to learn more about salmon or fish or whatever I’m into, so I start looking at biology and learning that side of things and I was like, “Man, this is really cool. I can come down here and go to school, finish up.” The same guy that got me into salmon fishing was a duck hunter. He’s like, “Man, you gotta try this duck hunting thing.” I was like, “Dude, I don’t want to do duck, who wants to go shoot a duck? It doesn’t sound fun to me. I don’t want to get up early, go stand in the marsh, what are you talking about?” Finally, he convinced me to go and man, it’s been history ever since. He took me out to Colusa Refuge just across the way here for the first time. I still remember those three mallards coming right over the top of me. After they came by, I was just in awe looking at him and he’s like, “Why didn’t you shoot?” “Man, I don’t know what I’m doing out here. You’re the guide, I don’t know whether to shoot or not to shoot or what’s going on.” That really started the waterfowl hunting thing. Sure enough, there’s a waterfowl biology class at Chico State. I ended up going to school at Chico State, walking through the halls, I saw this biology waterfowl biology class and I was like, “Man, that’s awesome, that’s so cool.” I went and talked to the professor and it was funny when I first went in there, I was like, “Yeah, I’m a duck hunter, I’m excited about this biology.” And he’s like, “Well, this class isn’t for duck hunters, this is for biologists. People that are serious about this and a lot of people get excited.” I was like, “Oh don’t worry I’ll get all my schooling done and I’ll be in this class when I meet the requirements.” Sure enough, a year or two later, I was in that class and everything kind of snowballed from there. I graduated from Chico state with a degree in biology and my buddy was working for California Waterfowl at the time and he’s like, “Hey, they need somebody for this position coming up.” I had already helped them band over the summer a couple of times and it was pretty cool going out there banding birds. He gets the guy’s contact and I give him my resume. September 1st the project started, and I hadn’t heard from this guy and I’m like “Man, I didn’t get the job, man, this is horrible. I didn’t get the job, what am I going to do?” Three days before the job starts, I get the phone call, “You want to come work for me?” and sure enough, I ran down there and we were shooting rocket netting the week after that and I’ve been with CWA ever since now.
Ramsey Russell: We were talking at dinner the other night, it’s like field biology is your calling. You find a real sense of purpose in that.
Brian Huber: Catching ducks is really like an art form. It’s really similar [to hunting] When we look for people when we hire, we’re looking for, you don’t have to be a hunter, but if I was looking for somebody and they’re hunter, I already know they understand how this rocket netting’s going to work. You got to scout, you got to find a spot, you got to think about where the birds are going to be, where you can hide so the birds aren’t going to flare off or get away from the rocket head and all that stuff. It really ties together with hunters.
How did you get into this challenging waterfowl management field?
I’ve just got this belief that we hunters are conservationists.
Ramsey Russell: When I was at Mississippi State, everybody that I went to school with, and I mean everybody was what I call a hooking bullet biologist. Now there’s been a massive transformation in the past 25 or 30 years in Mississippi State where very few of them are. Do you make a distinction? You just said that being a hunter helps them do feel biology, but are there any other advantage you see to it?
Brian Huber: As far as what?
Ramsey Russell: Getting along with people or kind of their interest?
Brian Huber: Yeah, I mean as far as being a hunter, doing the biology work. Yeah, absolutely. You’re really working with hunters, right? Sometimes we have to get access to private property. You have to get access to the refuge system. You have to work with these people and you’re dealing with that hunter mentality whether you’re a hunter or not.
Ramsey Russell: That’s what I’m getting at. People get tired of hearing me say it, but I’ve just got this belief that we hunters are conservationists. I believe that. Out here in the Sac Valley of California, here in California in general, where there’s 1000 clubs, when you get to around Great Salt Lake where there’s all these private clubs, throughout the whole country we’re through these private clubs. The recreational interest of hunters and hunting compels them to reach elbow deep, shoulder deep into their pockets and put money into wildlife habitat. Yes, so they can shoot birds, but beyond the birds they shoot all these birds and all these cognitive wildlife benefits.
Brian Huber: Everything else benefits. You have a wetland out there, not just ducks benefit, everything else benefits too. Giant garter snakes in California are a big deal. When you add a wetland, that’s the habitat for that as well. That’s beneficial to a lot more wildlife than just waterfowl.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I didn’t mean to flag you off that rabbit trail of getting started in what you do and all that field biology. But to get back on point, I just noticed in meeting with you and talking to you several times that I think that all young people get into wildlife management, especially hunters that are like me and you that are engineered that way, we want to know more, we want to make the world a better place with regard to the species we hunt that we love. The fun stuff is field biology, but then a lot of times the career of wildlife management that’s like the entry level is the fun stuff. Next thing you know you’re sitting on a mountain of paperwork, filing budgets, and doing spreadsheets and all this crap in the office, there’s a headache, but a fortunate few continue to live the dream and that’s what you’re doing.
Brian Huber: That’s what I’m trying to do, yeah. So far I’m not buried in paperwork too bad, but yeah. I started as a technician, so I’m learning from my previous mentor that basically kind of taught me all the ropes for rock netting and bait trapping and all the fun stuff we get to do, and now I’ve shifted to where I’m helping call the shots and helping run what we’re doing and setting everything up. It’s evolved a little bit. but yeah, I’m still out in the field, still got to do the fun stuff, as you say. I’d be miserable stuck in an office eight hours a day staring at a computer, it’s just not in me to do it. I can tell you I like being outside. I like meeting people, working with other people and being a problem solver, like we just started trying to catch some snow geese the last few years and that was new to me. How are we going to rocket net that snow geese? How are we going to do this? You’ve probably driven around and seen all these grinds and stuff, right? But you gotta get them within 10 ft. of a rocket net. How are you going to do that? Well, we found just finding loafing spots on the wildlife area. They’d go to an island, and we’d kind of pick out which island they’re using the most, and we would watch them for a little bit and then we’d wait till they leave. Sometimes that’s at eight at night. We go set up the rocket nets in the middle of the night and come back in the morning and hopefully they’ll be there. Sometimes they are and sometimes they’re not.
A million wood ducks? All about the California wood duck program
On an average year, we’re hatching roughly 30,000 ducklings.
Ramsey Russell: I was surprised. I know tomorrow we’ve got a hunt scheduled together, we’re going to target wood ducks. I said, “Well, there’s probably wood ducks everywhere.” But this morning was interesting, I was hunting not far from here with some friends, some new friends. We went to a club established in 1984, and it’s now converted back over just the private club of a family and a few friends, a beautiful, beautiful area. They’ve got rice fields, but we parked the ranger, we walked across the Butte Creek on a little metal footbridge, and fell off into this little riparian forest area of valley oaks that in the dark, especially the form of them, looks just like the live oaks back home. It felt like I was in coastal live oaks, except of course the leaflet is a lot different. We actually set up on Butte Creek to target wood ducks. We get to this little open, this little white spot in it, it’s just shrouded with buck brush and it feels so much like Mississippi. I’m like, “Holy cow, I’m in California.” But as we were walking down this trail, there are wood duck boxes, wood duck boxes, wood duck boxes. Eric was explaining to me how back in the day wood ducks were here, but they were uncommon. There’s been this massive undertaking with a lot of nest boxes that I know California Waterfowl is involved with, and he said, “Man, it has worked unbelievable.”
Brian Huber: Yeah. So in 1991, the California wood duck program was established. There were guys doing it before, but ‘91 is where real California Waterfowl kind of got involved and helped take over the coordination of the statewide project. I know when you introduced me, you said I’ve been the wood duck program coordinator for a decade, but I’ve only been the wood duck program coordinator for a couple of years. Before that I was a waterfowl biologist and not the wood duck coordinator, but we still want help with the wood duck program and stuff. The California wood duck program, as far as I’ve been told, is the largest volunteer conservation program in the country. We have over 600 volunteers throughout the entire state that all volunteer and help put up wood duck boxes on their own projects. At the end of the year, I coordinate with those folks to get their data and we do a big wood duck article every year for our spring magazine issue, which is spring, when the wood ducks start nesting and all that.
Ramsey Russell: For anybody listening that wanted to do something similar on their own property or their camp or in their area, is there a quotient? Or what is required for that undertaking?
Brian Huber: You can build wood duck boxes. We have plans on our website, californiawaterfowl.org. [Editor’s Note: the website address has changed since the recording of the podcast. It is now calwaterfowl.org] There’s plans on our wood duck section and you can look there. The story is, you want to build a wood duck box, you put it up, but you have to maintain that box. You put it up and you have to put wood chips in the bottom every year and multiple times throughout the year if you really want some activity, because we have European starlings in California, and they’ll actually go in there and build their nest. That will make that box unavailable to wood ducks. We have volunteers, too, that go and band these wood ducks for us. We have sub-permitted banders under the wood duck program. We have people that go out and manage their projects and some of the bigger projects. They go out and band the wood ducks. On an average year, we’re hatching roughly 30,000 ducklings just that we record through our boxes and since ‘91 we’re zoning in on the one millionth duckling for the programs.
Ramsey Russell: Wow, that’s a number now!
Brian Huber: Last year we had a really good year, but this year with COVID and everything, a lot of folks weren’t able to access properties, California and their stay-at-home orders that a lot of folks followed, so our numbers are down this year, but yeah.
Ramsey Russell: That’s incredible. Is there a recipe or a magic number per acre or anything like that if I want to have a meaningful response in this box?
Brian Huber: It’s hard to say. In my opinion, it really just depends on the property. Some properties can have quite a few wood duck boxes and some of them, you don’t want too many there. But what can happen is if you have too many wood duck boxes that will actually promote dump nesting, so you’ll get wood ducks coming in there dumping their eggs and not actually sitting on that nest. You’ll just have a box of 30 eggs or whatever that aren’t getting incubated.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve heard in the past that hooded mergansers are notorious for parasitic nesters. She’s sitting on some eggs, I’m going to let her sit on mine.
Brian Huber: We have a real substantial population of hooded mergansers. They typically nest a little earlier than wood ducks, so there’s a little bit of overlap, but typically if you’re on cleaning your boxes and say you get them cleaned out by late January, the hooded mergansers will be there in February. They’ll start nesting and then the wood ducks won’t come in until later March, April, and May, June is when the wood ducks start picking up.
Ramsey Russell: California Waterfowl Association to me represents, and I’m not saying there aren’t any more in the United States, I’m just saying I’m unaware of an organization quite like that at a state level. All the different things they do. You got this wood duck program, you’ve got a massive staff of biologists.
California duck numbers – what is the egg & nest salvage program?
70% of the birds shot in California are actually from California.
Brian Huber: I just work with waterfowl programs and just within that we have the banding program. We have the egg salvage program. I’m not sure if you’ve heard about that. Egg salvage wood duck program. We just started a delayed wheat program to try and make the nesting habitat a little more beneficial in California for our local birds. Most people probably don’t realize, but 70% of the birds shot in California are actually from California.
Ramsey Russell: No, I didn’t know that.
Brian Huber: We have a real substantial local population and our mallard specifically is all local birds. A lot of folks don’t realize that. We don’t really get huge pushes up north like a lot of people think. I mean, 70% of the mallards are from California. We know that through banding data. We’ve been able to kind of tease that out.
Ramsey Russell: Where do they primarily breed?
Brian Huber: They breed in North Sacramento valley and mostly up in the Northeastern zone in California.
Ramsey Russell: Talk about this. I was with Deek-the-Freak [this morning] you mentioned. What a fun guy. Gosh, I think he said he’s a fourth generation rice farmer not far from here. He was telling me about this egg salvage program. I’ve never even heard of such.
Brian Huber: The egg salvage program is a program that we do and what happens is a lot of these birds nest in these ag fields, so all the natural prairies and all the natural grasslands are pretty much gone in California. What you have left is croplands and croplands are very attractive to nesting waterfowl. What will happen is you’ll have a cover crop or something for a rice field. It’s organic, they’ll plant vetch in there. Well, that vetch in the spring is just a beautiful nesting habitat. These mallards will go in there: mallards, gadwalls, and occasionally some cinnamon teal. Well, the farmers got to come and till up before the birds are out. The egg salvage program is basically working with the farmers to coordinate nest searches. We’ll actually go in there with quads and a rope and search for the eggs.
Ramsey Russell: Again, volunteers, I’m thinking?
Brian Huber: This is mostly staff. We have a salvage program coordinator, Jason Kassovitz, who works for California Waterfowl and he’s in charge of the egg salvage stuff. I’m out there helping, our coordinator, Caroline Brady, is out there helping us to search these fields. What we do is we search these fields, we get the eggs, and we collect them, and then we bring them to one of our partner hatcheries. We hatch the birds out and then once they’re 5-6 weeks old, we band them and then release them back into the wild.
Ramsey Russell: That’s fantastic. Where do you generally take these eggs? I’m a farmer, I see this hen get up, I go collect a bucket of eggs during the course of a day, and I bring them to CWA? It must be a bunch of incubators.
Brian Huber: Yeah, we have three different partner facilities throughout the valley. There’s one down in the delta, there’s one over by Marysville, and then there’s one up by Chico. Either of those facilities the eggs go to and they have a bunch of incubators. They have brooding pens, they have all the different stages for the different ducklings. Then CWA will issue the bands to them, or we’ll actually go there and band them for them.
Ramsey Russell: That’s incredible.
Brian Huber: Yeah and it’s not a huge number, but we do in a good year like 4000 to 5000 mallards.
Ramsey Russell: Every little bit helps.
California’s annual mallard harvest
Brian Huber: When you look at a population of 250,000-300,000 kind of where our local mallard population hovers around.
Ramsey Russell: Quarter million.
Brian Huber: It’s not a huge number but it helps and it also helps the farmers. A lot of these farmers, they see a bird get up, but they don’t associate that bird with a nest in the ground. They’re just like, oh, that’s weird, a bird duck was sitting in the fallow field, rice field, and talking with these farmers and just explaining the conservation side like, “Hey, that’s a nest, pick it up and we’ll save the eggs.”
Ramsey Russell: Is there any incentive to the farmer to do this or just purely an ethos?
Brian Huber: Well, it’s mostly an ethos, but that’s where we’re starting this delayed wheat program. We’re actually offering incentive to the farmer to delay their wheat. Wheat is one of the major crops that these birds are nesting in here in California. Farmers can apply. Depending on their acreage, we will actually pay them to delay it a certain amount of time to compensate them for the amount of wheat that they may have lost from letting it go longer than they usually would. It’s a good program. We just started the pilot year last year. We were out doing the surveys for it and seeing how many birds are using those fields and trying to keep track of it. This year we’re doing it again.
Ramsey Russell: Knowing that so many mallards come from California, so many mallards that are killed in California come from California. That’s 70% of birds shot in California from California. That’s incredible.
Brian Huber: It’s just important. We’ve lost a lot of our habitat in California, the breeding or the nesting habitat. Traditionally, there used to be a lot of barley fields planted and that’s just more or less disappeared off the landscape. Then we also have these orchards kind of encroaching on the farmland. The orchards are not very beneficial to waterfowl.
Ramsey Russell: That blows my mind. It truly blows my mind, and twice with hunters, and people I know here in California, conversations, I’ve heard about Klamath, this area up north, one of the first refuges established under Theodore Roosevelt, lot of waterfowl utilization, a lot of water issues, and therefore in periods of drought which has been going on, the birds will displace to Tule Lake I think they said, where the water tends to be more stagnant. And therefore, and I know from having watched the social media feed the potential for botulism outbreak. And that’s a real big deal. I mean because those birds that would die up there, I’m thinking would probably end up here in Sac Valley.
Brian Huber: Every year you’re going to have botulism. It is just a matter of how bad it is. Typically on wet years when you have enough water to kind of be pushing it through the system and you’re not getting that hot stagnant water, you can control the outbreak. But when it gets over 90-100° you’re going the botulism is going to start coming out and then the birds are going to eat the vegetation that grows the botulism, and they’re going to get it, and you have to manage those dead birds. Because as soon as you have 10 dead birds, there’s larva, there’s maggots feeding on those, and then the other ducks eat those maggots and now they get it and die. it just continually spreads and spreads and spreads. It always happens, we always have small outbreaks. We have some outbreaks in the valley, but it’s never really huge, like it was last year. Last year, it was estimated almost 40,000 birds died up there at Tule Lake. Tule Lake, Klamath.
Ramsey Russell: Were they primarily mallards?
Brian Huber: Mostly mallards, gadwall, a lot of our local birds. The Tule Lake and Lower Klamath is a big molting area for our birds in the valley here, too. There’s a molt migration that occurs. Birds will actually breed in the valley here and nest and then they’ll migrate up to Tule Lake and Klamath to molt, because when they’re molting they prefer these big wetland complexes and that’s kind of the habitat up there, these big giant wetlands with a lot of acreage. On a normal year when they have water it’s fine and there’s a lot of water up there and it’s a great place to band. We’re doing some banding up there every summer, the refuge bands, and we helped them band up there as well. But you get all these huge concentrations of birds up there that are used to going up there, and then you tie that with the drought years and not enough water to be pushing it through, you have this huge outbreak. What happened last year is they just didn’t have the water to kind of flush and move around, and there was also a fire right on the edge of the refuge. That shut the refuge down. They’re having this outbreak as the fire is going and they didn’t have access to go out on the marsh to pick up the birds to slow the spread. It really catapulted into this really bad die off this year.
Ramsey Russell: In a typical year when you can’t access it, if you hear of dead birds sitting out on the water, possible botulism, somebody’s out there scooping them up, getting them out of the system.
Brian Huber: Yeah, they got four or five airboats out there. We’ll run the airboats when we’re banding, we’ll have our banding stations set up and we’ll run the airboat and we help them keep tabs on stuff. “Oh man we saw a couple of birds,” and so you saw a couple of dead birds, say there’s an outbreak, so they will go out there and work that unit, pick it up, and that kind of helps keep it under control. It usually doesn’t get too out of hand, but it snowballed this year up there on them.
What’s duck hunting like in California?
I’m pleasantly surprised at what a rich and colorful history it is, a tradition, a culture, and overall high quality hunting.
Ramsey Russell: How would you describe duck hunting in general in California? Because I’m pleasantly surprised at what a rich and colorful history it is, a tradition, a culture, and overall high quality hunting.
Brian Huber: Yeah, it is. There’s the whole spectrum of hunting. You’ve got the million dollar clubs right behind us here where we’re sitting and then you’ve got the public land refuge right across the way, too.
Ramsey Russell: In public land, it’s generally good out here.
Brian Huber: It can be, yeah. It’s really competitive. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the reservation system and the lottery you got to go put in for. It’s tough to get on. There’s birds on the refugees. They’ve got close zones and they typically have really good management out there that’s attractive to waterfowl.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve hunted San Francisco Bay for divers. You got your divers, you got your sea ducks, you’ve got your geese, you’ve got puddle ducks, it’s an amazing spectrum of waterfowl hunting opportunities out here. Do you think there would ever be a swan season? I’ve been passing barriers that are, wow, that’s a lot tundra swans sitting up there.
Brian Huber: Yeah, probably not in California. Just the way, unfortunately, the politics work out here. It’s not really based on science a lot of the time in California, it’s based on touchy feely stuff. I would be surprised if we ever got a swan season out here.
Ramsey Russell: What about sandhill cranes?
Brian Huber: I’d say the same issue.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Even if crop depredation got bad?
Brian Huber: Yeah, I don’t think it would happen. We’re trying to get a little more pintail out here. Once we can get a little bit higher pintail in it we’ll start there.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a good thing to talk about. I met with Chris Nikolai recently and we were talking about the pintail bag limits. Delta waterfowl is advocating a three pintail bag limit. No more than one hen. The data supports it. I’ve hunted places with a lot of pintail until I came to California. Today is a prime example. We started off on the wood ducks. Wood ducks were a no show. 7:30 – 8:00 o’clock walked out to some rice field, jumped in a pit line. right off the bat, John and I “boom,” I got my “boom,” he got his, we got our bull sprig.
Brian Huber: You’re probably staring at him the rest of the morning, right?
Ramsey Russell: There was a Macy’s Day parade of pintails for the rest of the morning. There’s a wigeon “poom,” I get a wigeon, and “poom,” a pair of mallards comes in, I shoot mine, he shoots his. We’re chipping away at them and I’m sitting there on duck number six waiting on my limit. It must have been 1000. I think a bald eagle flew over one of those rice patties out there and got a lot of these ducks up and they were just streaming passes low and slow, long sprigs streaming into the wind coming over and I’m just sitting there watching all these beautiful drake pintails. But I’m looking at pintail, pintail, oh, shoveler, “bam.” Hundreds of beautiful pintails go to get my 7th duck which is a shoveler and it’s just the absurdity [of it].
Brian Huber: You’re seeing that’s awesome, right? They’ve had a one bird limit for a while. They’re not getting pressure like the other ducks. They’re not getting shot at. When it was two birds you could tell that they got quick to that fast. When you bump it up, I’m going to enjoy shooting three pintails but it’s not going to be as easy as it is when it’s one.
California pintail habitat quality
How unbelievably fat and succulent these pintails and widget and California rice fed birds are.
Ramsey Russell: You got to play a stronger game. I was telling somebody the other day, it’s not a guarantee you’re going to shoot your seven ducks or whatever your limit is when you go every day, no matter where you hunt. It really is kind of sort of about how you play the game. I think I could be happy if it were convenient going out to one of these beautiful rice fields and shooting a drake pintail every day of the season then going to work. It was great. I could live with it.
Brian Huber: It’s great when you can go shoot two, you get your two pintails. I got my two pintails, I’d be pretty darn happy and I could go home after that.
Ramsey Russell: The habitat quality, this has been a current theme every single day I’ve been in Sac Valley, is how unbelievably fat and succulent these pintails and widget and California rice fed birds are.
Brian Huber: If you haven’t noticed, we got the winter habitat covered down here. I don’t think we need any more winter habitat down here. There’s rice fields, there’s wetlands, there’s refuges and there’s plenty of food for these birds. We’ve done some body condition studies, especially when we had some drought issues in California. And these birds were just fine hanging out in the valley even in really bad drought conditions.
Ramsey Russell: How would you describe water conditions this year relative to a normal years? Are we wet, are we dry?
Brian Huber: It’s a dry year. If we don’t get some water, we’re looking for a drought coming up this summer, it looks like. We just haven’t had any precipitation. I don’t know our annual rainfall, we talked about that. We just haven’t got the storms. Usually we’ll get some rain, it looks like next week we’re going to get a little bit of rain, but yeah, we’re looking for a drought. This year was tough on rice farming because the reservoirs were down a little bit and we didn’t get the rain to kind fill them back up so they kind of enacted some safety water issues. A lot of these rice fields didn’t get flooded on parts of the valley. There wasn’t a ton of rice field. On a good year we’re going to have 500,000 acres of flooded rice in this valley, and on a slower year, it’s 300,000 – 400,000 acres of flooded rise.
Ramsey Russell: Have you seen in the past 10 years or so, have you seen that with the restrictive pintail limit-pintail is a bread and butter duck. It is the duck of a California, Sacramento valley hunter?
Brian Huber: That’s part of my job is we’re catching these birds twice a year trying to band as many as we can to contribute to that data stream. That’s been going on and showing their survival and showing how well they’re doing in California. We’re getting almost 30% of the continent’s pintail population in California during the winter.
Ramsey Russell: Have you seen a decline in pintail habitat that landowners might be putting out? Have landowners shifted notably management from pintail to give favoritism to other species that are maybe more readily for the bag?
Brian Huber: Yeah, in the Suisun marsh, pintail tend to like open water more than that real tight habitat, generally speaking. That’s why these rice fields are real attractive to them. The bag used to be seven pintails and you’d have these guys in the Suisun marsh go out and shoot their seven pintails all the time. They would manage it with more open water, more big water for the pintail. Same with some of the clubs. They’ll change their management practice to be more like tight puddle duck stuff getting more wigeon, more mallards, just not the pintail open water habitat.
Ramsey Russell: What I’m sitting here thinking is, if we want more pintails, and we do, that’s the whole reason we hunters and everybody else got on board with restrictive management is we want more pintails, everybody I think would like to go back to a 10 pintail limit, like some of these old-timers around here I’ve talked to.
Brian Huber: A lot of the research is not on the winter grounds, it’s up in the nesting ground. That’s where the big shift has been in the habitat up there. Their prairie grass nesting birds, right? Well, a lot of that prairie grass is not up there anymore. What’s happening is they prefer the short stubble fields up there in the prairie pothole region. Farmers will have their field, they’ll leave it stubble, and so that looks like a shortgrass prairie field to these pintails. They go up there and nest in it. Well, kind of like our egg salvage program. These farmers come in there and just wipe them out. The pintail, they’re a little more fragile than a mallard so they’ll nest and then they’ll try and nest again but they’re not very good at it. The real issue is not, like a lot of this data that we’re talking about that’s coming out, it’s not the hunter harvest that’s causing this population decline, it’s the habitat, the nesting habitat that’s really causing not really a decline, it’s just the pintail have been fairly steady. They just didn’t bounce back when all the other ducks bounced back from the seventies when a lot of birds’ populations dipped. Well, all those other populations came back for the most part, but pintail didn’t. That’s why they’re such a restrictive bag on them.
Ramsey Russell: If we want to increase more duck productivity with quality habitat on the wintering ground so that they can go and make more babies. The higher their fitness level, the better. If the limit continues to be one and I’m a duck club, I might be putting my management into green winged teal or mallards or gadwalls or something else where I can get closer to shooting seven ducks more than pintails
Brian Huber: Yeah, that’s already happening.
Ramsey Russell: It’s double-edged. Now we’ve got the nesting ground problem, now we’ve got the wintering ground problem. If the powers that be would change the management to encourage three pintails, one hen, maybe they’ll be better wintering habitat.
Brian Huber: Honestly, I think the wintering habitat is going to be pretty sufficient as long as we keep flooding our rice fields, they’ll be pretty happy on wintering grounds. It’s really the nesting habitat that really needs the attention. There’s been a lot of talks with different things, I don’t think it’s come to fruition, but people were talking about pintail stamp and like a duck stamp you buy your pintail stamp and that gives you possibly another bird in the bag and all that money goes to habitat where they need it up in the nesting grounds.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a heck of an idea.
Brian Huber: Yeah. There’s all kinds of ideas being tossed out there trying to kind of improve the habitat.
Ramsey Russell: Who was talking that idea up?
Brian Huber: We just in general were speaking with some biologists and some employees and stuff.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a heck of an idea. I think hunters would do it. I would do it.
Brian Huber: If I was in California, everybody I know that has a rice blind would buy a pintail stamp. We’re just trying to think of different ideas that might be able to help. But it’s like I said, it’s really not the hunters. They aren’t really causing the population to go down. We’ve had a restrictive limit for quite a while and it’s not the mallard. The population isn’t bouncing back, the pintails aren’t just jumping up because we’re not shooting them. It also can be bad for the population if the sex ratios are getting skewed pretty bad, because in California you see they’re doing courtship flights right now. I’m sure you saw that.
Ramsey Russell: Every five or ten pintails I see it is nine drakes per hen.
Brian Huber: Yeah, and the last estimate I heard is about 1-6 ratio, one female to six drakes. Well, you got to think when they’re up there on the breeding grounds and those hens get up off the nest, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the duck, a hen mallard or anything, get off the nest, if there’s drakes around, they’re harassing her, they’re chasing her around, they’re giving her a hard time. Every time that hen gets up there’s potentially six drakes harassing her and giving her a hard time. That’s going to affect her ability to nest successfully.
Targeting wood ducks in the California hunt
Seven ducks, period, in the bag.
Ramsey Russell: Change of subject. Let’s get down to important matters. What’s the plan for tomorrow?
Brian Huber: Tomorrow we’re going to go hunt a little flooded cornfield that we got and we’re going to hopefully try and shoot some wood ducks.
Ramsey Russell: Target wood ducks. Is the wind going to continue?
Brian Huber: I think it’s going to finally die down. We’ve had a couple of days of some pretty strong north wind and I think tomorrow it’ll kind of die down a little bit. Hopefully that’ll be good. Hopefully we get some birds flying.
Ramsey Russell: What’s the limit on wood duck here in California?
Brian Huber: Seven wood ducks. Any sex, no restrictions.
Ramsey Russell: Man, that’s a real treat.
Brian Huber: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Seven ducks, period, in the bag. In Mississippi and everywhere I’ve ever hunted the limit is three.
Brian Huber: Yeah, the Pacific Flyway is a little bit different than the other the eastern population of wood ducks. There’s a lot more wood ducks over there. But on the Pacific Flyway, a lot of people aren’t harvesting wood ducks here. You can use that harvest data to justify having a restricted bag on them.
Ramsey Russell: I keep up with you on social media, you’ve got a very, very interesting Instagram page, particularly. How can people listen and plug into you on social media?
Brian Huber: I just started a page on Instagram. It’s called @birdyologist. I really just started posting stuff about what we got to do. The biology, the fieldwork, shooting the rocket nets, catching the birds, banding them, doing wood duck boxes, and all that stuff. I just try to post the life of a field biologist.
Ramsey Russell: What has been the public response?
Brian Huber: It’s been crazy, man. never thought I’d get over 10,000 followers for just posting duck banding stuff. It’s been really neat and it’s been really cool. I get a lot of messages, you see all the cool stuff. The rocket that’s going off and stuff, but what a lot of people don’t see are those messages that you get. Once a week I get a message from a high school student or something. “Hey man, what a cool job, what do I need to do to grow up to do waterfowl biology or biology in general,” or whatever. And just trying to help those kids, steer them in the right direction.
Ramsey Russell: How does it feel? I get a range of emails too and I’m just curious how does that feel?
Brian Huber: It just feels surreal, it really does. I mean I’m just plugging along, and then you get these people that kind of look up to you and it’s a neat feeling to kind of try and get back.
Ramsey Russell: Its incredible influence. You’re playing a role in a young person’s life like a teacher, like a mentor. It’s really not what you signed up for.
California Waterfowl Association
I’m really trying to help kind of bridge the hunter and the biologist together.
Brian Huber: Yeah, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you if I didn’t start birding. There’s no way. It’s been a neat ride, it’s fun, and I just enjoy kind of sharing what I got to do for work and then I really just kind of try and tie it into the fact that I’m a hunter too and I’m also a biologist and so I’m really trying to help kind of bridge the hunter and the biologist together and keep them informed on what we’re doing. A lot of folks don’t like to share banding information or where they are. We don’t really say where we’re banding, but if we catch pintail, like there’s no harm in saying, “Hey, we caught some pintail and banded them.” I’m not going to give you GPS coordinates on where we did it, but I just think it’s important. A lot of these projects that we do through California waterfowl, that’s my employer, but a lot of these projects we do are funded by duck hunters. We’re getting grants from duck stamp money, all kinds of stuff. I feel it’s important to keep that connection to hunters and what we do and show them what we’re doing out there in the field with essentially their money.
Ramsey Russell: I think that’s such a good point because we duck hunters generally aren’t reading the federal register. We’re not reading the federal register. Even if I dared, I don’t have time in the day to read that legal-ease. I just need good information. Because I think all of us hunters want to participate. Duck hunting is a participation sport.
Brian Huber: Yeah, absolutely.
Ramsey Russell: And anything we can do. If you look at the whole waterfowl conservation movement, it was spearheaded by hunters.
Brian Huber: Yeah. That’s the two messages I get a lot: “How do I become a biologist? And then the next one is, “how do I volunteer? How do I get out and help you?” And we try our best to get people out there. I was talking about the hatchery. We’ll actually do hatchery events where we’ll invite the public to come out there and band ducks with us. A lot of that’s changed with the new COVID regulations and all that stuff. We’re really limited right now on volunteers, but hopefully things will get back to normal a little bit and we’re open to having people come out and help us band birds and stuff when it works out.
Ramsey Russell: What would you tell to some of the young people listening and probably some of your followers that are listening? What advice would you give them to pursue, they’re in high school right now. Where do they need to go from now to end up in your boots one day?
Brian Huber: Volunteer. Man, you gotta get out there and volunteer. You gotta get out there and you gotta work hard. It’s a competitive field. That’s why I don’t try to sugarcoat it. We don’t get paid a ton of money and it’s a competitive field, but it’s fun. You really have to have the passion to get into it. But yeah, volunteer man, that’s the reason why I helped. I kind of got my foot in the door with California Waterfowl when I was going to Chico state, I helped start a California Waterfowl Chico State chapter. Me and some students got together and we kind of had these monthly meetings and we’d invite people to come talk at our meetings and we had some folks from California waterfowl come in and we had a really famous rice farmer family come in and give us a talk about rice farming and all that. That’s how I got my foot in the door. You really got to volunteer, you got to help as much as you can and you got to have a strong work ethic. You can’t just show up and be lazy. This is a physical job, you gotta get out there to work. I mean we’re setting rocket nets up in the middle of the night while mosquitoes are trying to carry you away and you got to be a little bit tough. But as far as the schooling goes, there’s some good schools out there and you have to pick a school either in your area or look up just wildlife programs, wildlife biology, there’s some waterfowl programs and you go and most folks get a degree in wildlife biology. Nowadays, most folks have a master’s or even a doctorate and it gets pretty competitive. So go out there volunteer, get your schooling done, get a degree, and just try and get your foot in the door and work hard.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve got this question I just thought of and I can’t believe I’ve met with a lot of biologists like yourself, Nikolai for example and others, and I just now thought of this question, but I’m curious. You band a lot of ducks.
Brian Huber: I added it up. It was about 50,000 birds.
Ramsey Russell: 50,000 birds you’ve banded. Duck bands, and here is where I’m coming from, duck bands on the one hand, I’m excited when I killed one, I get to report it to the biologist, see where it comes from, its providence, whatever like that. But on the other hand, I’m the second person since the hand of God to touch that bird. When I shoot an unbanded bird, I’m shooting a truly wild unsoiled [bird]. I’m not shooting a specimen or a data. I’m shooting a wild bird. But it’s this thing about these bands, it’s almost like this prestige, this award. This thing that makes normal people kind of weird.
Brian Huber: Yeah. People are weird. We have to be careful about where we say we’re banding, like we have GPS data on where I can show you right now where birds are in the valley. But we can’t show that to the public. There’d be one guy out there who would go and try and shoot them or something. It’s really this culture of bands, to us it’s a data point, and that’s what it’s always been, as a data point. You get the age, you get the migration, you get all that stuff that we need to monitor these populations. There’s people that have that band in, they just have to have a lanyard with two bands for status or I don’t know what it is.
Ramsey Russell: But now on the other hand, in this equation, how do you feel when you shoot a band?
Brian Huber: I love it. I think it’s awesome. I haven’t shot one in a few years.
Ramsey Russell: Have you ever shot one of your own?
Brian Huber: I have not, I really want to shoot one of my pintails, but they’re pretty tough.
Ramsey Russell: I want to shoot one of your shovelers to be honest.
Brian Huber: There’s a handful of those, not many, but there’s a few of them. I was helping do a Canada goose banding project and I probably didn’t actually band the bird, but I shot one of those birds from the day we were banding. That’s the closest I’ve come. I wouldn’t really say it’s one of mine, but it’s close. I want those pintails or wigeon, man, those are the ones I want. We’ve been banding in quite a few pintails or wigeon over the years.
Ramsey Russell: I didn’t know that.
Brian Huber: We do postseason banding for pintail. So right after duck season, we’re out there setting rocket nets trying to catch pintails. and the wigeon actually grind up with the pintails quite often. We’ll actually catch quite a few wigeons and pintails together. A couple of eurasians, too, were out there.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve heard some stories about Eurasian wigeons out here.
Brian Huber: Yeah, there’s quite a few, it seems like the population is growing and growing and growing. I can’t really tell you what happened yet because they haven’t publicized anything, but we went out and captured a pair. We assume it was a pair because we could tell by the GPS, but we put GPS backpacks on a pair of Eurasian wigeons. As far as I know, nobody has documented a nesting Eurasian Wigeon in North America. There’s been a lot of anecdotal stuff, but nothing solid. We captured this pair and it’s pretty neat following them where they went. I think the hen might have disappeared. But the male, he went up and he started coming back down, so it’s pretty neat.
Ramsey Russell: That’s cool. Folks, y’all have been listening to my friend Brian Huber, California Waterfowl Association. Wow, duck hunting in California. Everybody needs to add it to their bucket list. But whether it’s California or Mississippi or North Carolina or anywhere y’all are listening from today, duck hunting doesn’t happen by accident. There’s a lot of work and a lot of intelligent thought and a lot of biology type stuff that goes into this wonderful resource we all share. Thank y’all for listening to Duck Season Somewhere. I’ll see you, from the road, next time.