The 2019 Akimiski Island banding crew © Andrew Collard
Back L-R: Lauren Crawshaw, Rob Burns (pilot), Peter Gilboe, Rick Caldwell, Rod Brook
Front L-R: Morgan Hawkins, Steve Scholten, Andrew Collard
DUC volunteer Pete Gilboe joined the goose banding program at Akimiski Island this past summer. The program, led by Rod Brook, is part of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry’s Goose Monitoring in the Hudson Bay Lowlands. Each year, 8,000 to 10,000 Canada geese are banded in Ontario and on Akimiski Island, as well as 1,200 to 2,000 snow geese on Akimiski Island. The program helps estimate survival and harvest rates that guide hunting regulations. We interviewed Pete and here is his story, in his own words.
I’ve been going to the southern James Bay coast on and off since I lived in Moosonee in the 90s. I started on field crews as a conservation officer, doing nesting ecology and gosling survival as well as adult geese banding. I fell in love with the coast and Rod has been good enough to allow me to tag along as a volunteer in the last few years.
Polar bears, birds & you
Where the research camp is set up is on the north shore of Akimiski Island in James Bay. The camp is right on the coastline and the tide comes up pretty much to your doorstep. Because the land is so flat, the tide then retreats right over the horizon. Local people use their camps primarily for goose hunting in the spring and fall so there’s really no one on the island when we’re there.
There’s the constant sound of geese. You go to sleep to the sound of geese feeding and you wake up to the sound of geese feeding. It’s a short season but the days are long so they make the best of it.
The research camp has evolved over the years. Back in the 90s, it was simply canvas prospector tents and it’s evolved into buildings with roofs. We’ve got a solar system that runs lights and propane cooking facilities and oil furnaces in all the cabins to keep us warm. So, it’s pretty nice as bush living goes.
Subarctic is the best way to describe the island. It’s not tundra, there’s boreal forest there but it’s stunted black spruce and tamarack for the most part—with some willow. The geese concentrate on what we call the tidal flats, the intertidal zone where the grass flats are submerged at a very high tide. You see thousands of shorebirds working their way along the coast too because it’s a really important ecological zone for them.
One of the other neat things about Akimiski is the polar bears, which are ashore in the summertime when we’re there. The camp compound is surrounded in page-wire fence with barbed wire on top to keep the humans in the zoo and keep the bears out of the zoo. They’re far more interested in us than they were 25 years ago.
There’s the constant sound of geese. You go to sleep to the sound of geese feeding and you wake up to the sound of geese feeding.
The pull of the place
I took vacation time to go and so do other volunteers. Everybody wants to be there for the same reasons. It’s the love of the coast. It’s starkly beautiful and just so flat that there’s no topography to it whatsoever. Nothing else like it in Ontario. The actual banding of the geese is just work; but it’s work in a really cool place. To me, the difference is where you’re doing it.
A day of camp life
Typical day, we’re up around seven o’clock for breakfast where everybody chips in. There’s a crew of seven plus the pilot. You get your field gear ready—your field pack and whatnot—and jump in the helicopter. I love to fly, so I love the chance to get into the helicopter which I don’t get to do in my day-to-day work life anymore.
The geese are all flightless—that’s the premise of the whole thing. All waterfowl molt their flight feathers and with geese it’s when the young haven’t fledged yet. So, part of the crew gets into the helicopter, goes out and finds a group of geese. You set two or three people down to surround them while the helicopter shoots back to camp.
Then the second group comes out and sets up a U-shaped net, you herd the geese into the net—typically in the 100 to 200 range—and you’ve got yourself some geese. Then you process them for banding one at a time, beginning with the goslings because they’re smaller.
When you tuck the head of a goose under its wing, they calm right down for handling. The birds are sexed and the metal leg band is put on and the information is recorded. We still use the old-fashioned paper forms in the field because paper and pencil don’t break. Then away they go to a release pen. The idea is to let them go all at once at the end so the family groups stay intact.
Report your bands (www.reportband.gov)
Don’t just put your bands on your call lanyard—report your bands. I think most people do now because with smartphones you just punch in the data to get a certificate with the band’s origin. A buddy of mine was hunting this fall here in New Liskeard and they shot banded birds that were all Akimiski birds. This is their first stop off the coast to hit the agricultural fields, which is why our goose hunting is so good.