End of aerial surveys leave Klamath birders in the dark

Spring migration is underway in the Klamath Basin wildlife refuges, but refuge biologists don’t know how many waterfowl are in the area because aerial surveys stopped in January.

Paula Fanning, office manager at Macy’s Flying Service, confirmed that Macy’s, based in Tulelake, Calif., did not renew a contract that allowed a private pilot and retired biologist to conduct aerial surveys above the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Fanning said the contract was not renewed because Macy’s wanted to focus its planes on other flying activities.

According to John Beckstrand, a biologist for the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, the refuge complex has conducted aerial surveys for waterfowl since 1953, typically September through April.

“I think it’s one of the largest long-term aerial-survey databases in the country,” Beckstrand said. “Our units are so big, you really can’t do ground counts. It’s not feasible, because there’s so much you can’t see.”

Last week, Beckstrand estimated about 40,000 white geese, mostly snow geese, were at the Tule Lake NWR. He said about 10,000 snow and Ross’s geese were on Lower Klamath NWR.

“Normally, Lower Klamath would hold the bulk of the birds in the spring under normal or ideal habitat conditions,” Beckstrand said.

According to Beckstrand, this spring’s largest pulse of birds to date came through during the Winter Wings Festival, which occurred in mid-February.

Beckstrand said bird habitat is “greening up” early this year, giving birds more places forage off the refuge system.

He said Tule Lake and Lower Klamath refuges have more water than they’ve had in the last two or three years in the spring. Last year the refuge did not receive water when it was most needed, stagnating this year’s plant growth and waterfowl food supply.

Last year, aerial surveys identified about 120,000 pintail, a duck species that likes to forage in shallow water, at Clear Lake NWR in California. Beckstrand said accessing the refuge by foot or ATV can be done, but it’s challenging and time consuming.

“I suspect there’s that many birds out there now,” Beckstrand said.

Beckstrand speculated that future surveys could be done with drone technology. He said agency officials are discussing whether the refuge will pursue another aerial survey contract.

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