The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission is working cooperatively to determine broad-scale movements and nesting locations of northern pintails. In February 2004, biologists with the Wildlife Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the New York Cooperative Research Unit marked 15 female pintails in North Carolina with state-of-the-art transmitters that can be picked up by polar orbiting satellites. In February 2005, an additional 12 female pintails were instrumented by Wildlife Commission biologists. Other states are also cooperating in this Atlantic Flyway project and include: New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, and Florida. Specifically, researchers hope to gain a better understanding of the relationship between pintails that winter in various areas of the Atlantic Flyway and the overall continental population.
The northern pintail has the largest breeding range of any waterfowl species with nesting locations extending into Siberia and Scandinavian Peninsula. In North America, pintails nest from the eastern Canadian maritime provinces, west across the northern tier of the United States and throughout Canada and into Alaska. Highest concentrations of nesting pintails occur in Saskatchewan and Alberta. With its expansive breeding range, pintails have historically been considered one of the most numerous duck species as recorded on breeding grounds surveys; however, numbers of pintails have declined over the last 40 years and currently are below their long-term average and below goals established by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. Mid-winter aerial survey estimates of pintails in North Carolina suggest that wintering numbers have declined over the long-term, but have stabilized over the last 20 years.
In North Carolina and throughout the country, pintails are a highly prized species by hunters, but the long-term population decline has necessitated much more restrictive hunting seasons compared to most other duck species. The most likely culprit for long-term decline is poor breeding success as a result of long-term changes in habitat and more recent changes in farming practices. This fact was dramatically highlighted when pintail populations failed to rebound when the prairie region recently enjoyed a relatively wet cycle. Many other duck species during the same time period showed very favorable increases and several reached record levels. Much of the problem likely occurs in Prairie Canada (the heart of Pintail country), where nearly 75% of the grasslands have been converted to croplands since the early 1900’s and where large-scale, government conservation programs (like CRP) do not exist.
One of the poorly understood aspects of pintail ecology is the relationship of pintail breeding areas and their affiliation to wintering areas in North Carolina and other areas of the Atlantic Flyway. Pintails wintering in the Atlantic Flyway are generally considered to be mix of birds that nest in both eastern Canada and the prairie pothole region of the United States and Canada. How this mix varies from north to south in the flyway in not well recognized. Although pintails are widely dispersed and occur in far fewer numbers in eastern Canada, nesting habitat in this region is likely much more stable and does not undergo the sometimes dramatic changes that occur in the prairies. Complicating the matter is that breeding grounds surveys targeting pintails in eastern Canada are lacking and population trends from this vast area are unknown. Having a better understanding how pintails wintering in the Atlantic Flyway relate to the overall continental population of pintails will help guide managers in North Carolina and the Atlantic Flyway in making better informed pintail harvest and habitat management decisions.
In North Carolina, pintails are a coastal oriented species as the overwhelming majority of the pintail harvest occurs in 6 coastal counties.
We thus focused our marking efforts along the coast at several locations where suitable trapping sites could be found. Pintails were caught with both rocket nets and swim-in traps and then fitted with transmitters. The heaviest birds with adult plumage characteristics were chosen to be fitted with transmitters. All were kept overnight for observation and then released at the capture site. Other pintails captured were leg-banded and released on-site. Birds were marked at 4 different locations: 4 from Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) (Hyde Co.), 3 from Pocosin Lakes NWR (Washington Co.), 2 from Pea Island NWR (Dare Co.) and 2 from Pine Island Hunt Club (Currituck Co.).
The satellite transmitters (called PTT’s or Platform Transmitter Terminals) are manufactured by Microwave Telemetry, Inc. and weigh 20g. The weight of the transmitter is critical as the overall weight of the transmitter/harness package should not exceed approximately 3-4% of the weight of the bird. Until very recently, technology did not exist that allowed for such a lightweight package with an extended battery life. The transmitters rest on the back of the bird and are attached with a Teflon ribbon harness. Birds appear to adapt well to the transmitter package although we do suspect that it takes several days before the bird has adjusted and preened in the harness to their liking.
Transmitters may be programmed an infinite number of ways, depending upon study objectives. Because we are primarily interested in large-scale movements over the course of 1 year, our transmitters are programmed to send a signal every 65 seconds for eight hours every six days. This routine conserves battery power and should allow researchers to track the pintails through spring migration, breeding, and the following fall migration. Signals are picked up by an ARGOS tracking system receiver attached to several NOAA polar-orbiting weather satellites. SERVICE ARGOS is a cooperative venture under the joint management of France's Center of National Space Studies, and the United States of America's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The purpose of ARGOS is to allow researchers to remotely collect environmental data on a wide range of subjects, including: meteorology, oceanography, and animal ecology. The data is then relayed down to earth where locations are determined by ARGOS and then finally where it is sent to project personnel.