GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Rob Vollrath has bagged his share of banded ducks and geese over the years, but nothing like the mallard he shot Oct. 28 in northern North Dakota.
That was a first — and pure coincidence, Vollrath, of Grand Forks, said.
“The (device) wasn’t discovered until we gathered up the birds at the end of the hunt,” he said.
The contact number and the reward offer came from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji, where waterfowl researchers are conducting a study into the movements and migration patterns of mallards.
Vollrath contacted the DNR and returned the tracking unit to Bemidji, where DNR waterfowl biologist Bruce Davis downloaded the information stored in the tiny device.
Turns out the mallard Vollrath shot was fitted with the tracking unit Sept. 3 at Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area in northwest Minnesota. Davis said information downloaded from the receiver showed the mallard stayed in northwest Minnesota through Sept. 29, when it moved to southwest Manitoba.
The mallard remained in Canada until flying to northern North Dakota on Oct. 14 and getting harvested two weeks later.
According to Davis, the tracking unit Vollrath returned doesn’t transmit a signal but instead receives GPS signals and records location data much like a typical hand-held GPS. Davis said he can’t download the data until he has the unit in hand, which is why the DNR offers a reward for return of the tracking devices.
The DNR put tracking units on 120 mallards this year at various locations across the state in conjunction with traditional banding efforts, Davis said. Researchers fitted GPS loggers on 80 young mallard drakes and 40 satellite-capable units on mature hen mallards.
“Young males are the most harvested group, so we get the biggest return for our buck,” Davis said. “Adult females are the lowest-harvested birds, and we want them to stay alive and upload info.”
As of last week, 17 study mallards had been shot and reported by hunters, Davis said.
“We are still waiting to get some of those back,” he said. “Hunting seasons are just getting started in the southern states, so we expect more recoveries through the end of January.”
The more sophisticated satellite-capable units don’t upload until they are full of data, Davis said.
“As a test, we had a few of these set to upload early, but the majority will begin transmitting data later this winter,” he said. “We’re pretty happy with what we’re getting back. All of the ones scheduled to upload early uploaded on time and provided a full array of data.”
Then and now
This isn’t the DNR’s first study involving tracking devices on mallards. About 10 years ago, researchers in the Bemidji DNR office installed transmitters on three mallards. Davis’ colleague, Steve Cordts, oversaw that study, which was part of a larger project in Arkansas and Mississippi to fit more than 80 birds in the two states with transmitters.
“The difference between what was done in the past and what we are doing now is that when (Cordts) marked those birds, they were only marking a few, and they primarily were testing the technology,” Davis said. “Our current operation marks a lot more with tracking devices. We are testing technologies, but also trying to answer some questions about bird movements.”
There are some tradeoffs in technology, Davis said. Tracking devices such as the unit Vollrath returned don’t transmit information, but they weigh about a third as much as the transmitters Cordts used in 2006 and comprise only about 1 percent of the bird’s body weight.
They’re also considerably less expensive, costing about $500 each; the satellite-capable units in the current study cost about $1,500, and the transmitters used in 2006, which were even more sophisticated, cost about $4,000, Herald archives show.
The mallard study is scheduled to last two more years, Davis said. This year’s results will determine whether the researchers stick with GPS loggers or switch to more of the pricier transmitter-type units and track fewer ducks, he said.
“Basically, we have a fixed amount of money to spend on tracking units, and we’ll spend according to where we think” the results are best, he said.
Davis said the westward movement of the duck Vollrath shot came as a mild surprise, but overall, the results haven’t been too shocking.
“For the most part, birds are being shot relatively close to where they were marked,” he said. “Probably because we had a warm fall, birds haven’t moved a lot, and that’s what we would expect.