A recently banded duck waits to be re-released back into the wild as members of the Home Garden Club, reflected in a window, take photos, Thursday at Bitter Lake Wildlife Refuge. (Mark Wilson Photo)
Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge biologist Jeff Sanchez inspected a mallard with a dark green feathered head before releasing it back into the wild. Though the duck fluttered its wings and squirmed against his chest, Sanchez could see a silver band as wide as a wedding ring already fastened to its orange leg. This drake didnâ€™t need any more jewelry.
â€œOh, heâ€™s banded,â€ Sanchez told members of the Home Garden Club who were helping release the birds, Thursday morning. â€œAnd heâ€™s one of ours.â€
The refuge began â€œbandingâ€ ducks, or identifying with a tag, in late December, to begin tracking the migratory patterns and survivorship of the Northern Pintail.
The data collected by the refuge will be forwarded to an area wildlife biologist working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service out of Lubbock, Texas.
The refuge has banded small birds, like sparrows and warblers, for the past three years, but the duck banding only began after The U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service trapped the ducks and swabbed them for avian influenza last year in a nationwide effort to control the contagious virus.
â€œI pretty much continued the process,â€ Sanchez said. â€œWe might as well band them since we captured them, send them off with some new jewelry.â€
Sanchez and his team have tagged 76 waterfowl so far this season and 14 on Thursday. They capture the ducks when they swim into one of the eight heartshaped cage traps spread throughout the wetlands in the refuge.
If the bird is already marked, Sanchezâ€™s assistant, April Easley, checks the tag number to see if the duck is from the refuge or somewhere else. If the duck is from somewhere other than the refuge, they report it to a banding office in Maryland before releasing it. If the duck is â€œone of ours,â€ Easley documents it and sets it free.
If the duck is unmarked, they examine the duckâ€™s health by measuring the birdâ€™s wing length, weight, total head length (from top of head to the end of the bill), â€œculmenâ€ (bill length), â€œtarsusâ€ bone (the middle of the leg), gender and age. Then, they fasten a silver band with a tracking number and the phone number of the banding office to the duckâ€™s left leg with pliers.
The manager of the refuge, Joe Saenz, said with this information, the refuge can better track where the duck flys and how its health may have changed in different habitats. Meanwhile, releasing the ducks can make for great entertainment.
â€œJust get â€™em and throw â€™em,â€ Sanchez advised Garden Club member Opal Malone, before a duck flew out of her hands and into the refuge.
Each club member who braved the cold outside took turns releasing the birds from the visitor centerâ€™s back balcony.
â€œItâ€™s so fun,â€ Jan Smith, another club member, said. â€œWeâ€™ve never seen them banded before.â€