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Mallard Duck Research

Fish & Game is dedicating a significant amount of resources and staff time to mallard research. Here you'll be able to find out what we're doing in the field to both improve our knowledge of this valued game bird and ultimately benefit hunters.

You'll find a stack of information here which will be updated as milestones are met and new reports come to hand. If you want to be informed of new posts to this page, don't forget to 'like' Fish & Game on Facebook.

1. GPS telemetry productivity

A component of Fish & Game's wider mallard research programme is GPS telemetry or tracking. This involves trapping mallard hens, then attaching GPS transmitters to them so they can be located and observed. 

We want to find out when the birds are nesting, how many have hatched and fledged. This should help identify key limiting factors to the growth of mallard and grey duck populations.

  • NEST CAM - the image below is the latest footage from our hidden cameras.

August 28: An Australasian harrier helps itself to an egg from one of our monitored nests.

  • LATEST UPDATE (16/ February 18, 2015)

Duck research milestone reached

Fish & Game’s landmark mallard research project has finished its first season, and while there are another two seasons of research still to be completed, interesting preliminary data is already emerging.

The mallard project is a significant research effort by Fish & Game and follows concerns voiced by hunters throughout the country that mallard populations had fallen from levels seen in previous years.

Because the mallard duck is the mainstay of most New Zealand waterfowl hunting, Fish & Game is now trying to determine what the species requires to sustain a good, stable and huntable population.

The research team is looking at mallards in both the North and South Islands, focussing on Waikato and Southland because of those regions’ reputation as prime mallard hunting areas.

The researchers are trying to understand mallard productivity and habitat use and the initial results are interesting.

Using high-tech transmitters and tracking equipment, the team discovered that mallards began nesting in mid-July and by September, broods had started hatching.

Research technician Julie Unfried tracking ducks fitted with transmitters.

By December, most birds had finished nesting, although a few late broods were being hatched and reared through Christmas and into the New Year.

There was a difference in survival rates between the two regions.

In Waikato, nest survival appears to be around 50 percent, with some birds attempting to nest up to four times.
While nest survival appears higher than expected, duckling survival is in contrast, extremely low. Many Waikato birds hatched their first nest only to lose the entire brood within the first week.

Although most females which lost broods re-nested and raised a few ducklings the second time around, only 14 percent duckling survival was observed in Waikato.

This contrasts sharply with the results obtained in Southland.  There, many birds successfully raised their ducklings on their first nest attempt, and while there was still significant predation on females, nest and duckling survival appears to be much higher.
Preliminary analysis suggests Southland’s nest and duckling survival may be as high as 60 or 70 percent.

From the information obtained during the 2014 breeding season, it would appear predators are to blame for the majority of nest losses. 

One of the reasons for this is that the habitats the birds nest in, such as hedgerows and ditches, create an easy target for mammalian predators. Scientists describe such  sites as being “lineal habitats” because they are in straight lines.  

An unexpectedly high number of females were killed during incubation while on their nests. Initial observations suggest cats, stoats and hawks may have an important impact on female mallard survival during breeding. Pukekoes also took a toll on nests and ducklings.

The mallard research project is now a third of the way through its three year timetable and team members describe the first year as “an enormous success.”

Figures are now being analysed to provide the detailed picture required before conclusions can be drawn, and over the next two breeding years, more data will be collected in an effort to gain a comprehensive understanding of what the mallard population is doing in New Zealand.

Come spring 2015, the researchers and volunteers will be back out in the field gathering the huge volume of information and data necessary if meaningful results are to be obtained.

February 18, 2015

Hopes for better duck hunting season 

Central North Island Fish & Game officers are hopeful of a better game bird season in May, after thousands of mallards have been trapped and banded around the North Island.  

The work is carried out in the Bay of Plenty and East Coast, and the Auckland and Waikato regions. Areas which come under the strongest hunting pressure are normally trapped more intensively.

Eastern Senior Fish & Game officer Matthew Mc Dougall says so far this summer, well over 5000 birds have been banded.

“It appears that this year we’ve had a good breeding season which bodes well for hunters come the opening of the duck season on the first weekend in May.”   

Mr Mc Dougall says juvenile ducks make up a large part of the hunter’s bag and “if there are plenty around hunters tend to do well.”

He says that last year’s banding programme turned up a long-distance flight by a mallard banded in the Hauraki district, which ended up more than 2000 kilometres away north of Noumea, capital of the French territory of New Caledonia. A woman whose husband shot the bird in a local swamp got in touch to say they’d recovered the bird.    

“It wasn’t a one-off, it’s in fact the third time a bird has turned up in New Caledonia,” Mr Mc Dougall says. “Initially, we thought people were having us on.”

Also intriguing is how often some birds have been recaptured as part of the banding programme. One bird first banded in Galatea nine years ago, has now been recaptured on three subsequent occasions. “It shows that being trapped and banded doesn’t put the birds off a free feed.”

The banding information that hunters send in provides some crucial data but of course, it isn’t looked at in isolation. “It’s just one of the tools we are using to help assess what different populations are doing.”

Mr Mc Dougall says banding provides data on age and sex ratios, and survival rates in addition to where birds have dispersed to.  

Fish & Game is again calling on hunters to return band details from birds they shoot, once the season gets underway.

BACKGROUND:

The annual banding now in its 19th year involves capturing the ducks in baited ‘crayfish-type’ traps which let them in, but not out again. Coded bands are attached to their legs before they are released. This provides information to compare with the previous breeding season, which helps in setting duck shooting limits.

Fish & Game uses banding to find out survival rates for juveniles and adults, males and females.

Recovery of a band also means the distance between the banding site and recovery site can be calculated, as can the time elapsed since banding  - giving an indication on how long the bird lived for.

Staff from the Ministry for Primary Industries use the banding sessions as an opportunity to test the birds for diseases such as avian ‘flu.

- Media release from Senior Fish & Game Officer Matthew Mc Dougall, tel 07-3575501 

Pictured: Fish & Game Chairman Lindsay Lyons and Eastern Manager Andy Garrick banding near Te Puke.

  • 28 August, 2014

Waikato duck study New Zealand first

A groundbreaking Fish & Game study is helping researchers shed light on the nesting habits of mallard ducks, and should have spin-offs for other species of waterfowl.

A thin breeze with echoes of snow slides across Te Awamutu's Lake Mangakaware, rustling raupo and rippling the surface of the small rural waterway.

Although frost in surrounding paddocks has only just melted, David Klee is sweating in a short-sleeved bush shirt, squinting into the low sun on a stunning Waikato winter morning.

The Fish & Game officer leans back into his work. He glides a borrowed mud-clad dinghy, until minutes ago full of murky water and parked under a willow, across the lake surface as he rows towards a noisy chattering of swans, geese and duck.

In the stern of the small boat, field technician Julia Unfried navigates using a hand-held aerial and directional radio receiver, until some affronted geese suddenly erupt off the water and fly off in an indignant cacophony.

Pictured: David Klee (Photo Jamie Troughton - Dscribe)

Seconds later, a flight of mallard ducks take off from the middle of the lake. Unfried tracks them intently with the aerial, nodding towards the front pair, a hen and drake.

Duck number 474, the hen, has been identified and sighted. Klee gives a grin, satisfied that her willingness to fly means she hasn't started nesting yet, then pivots the dinghy around and heads back to shore.

In case the radio tracking isn't a dead giveaway, this ain't no wild goose-chase.

Klee and Canadian Jenn Sheppard, a PhD student at Auckland University, are spearheading a major Fish & Game study gathering vital data on New Zealand mallard nesting and breeding habits.

Though mallards are this country's key game bird species, much about their breeding habits and how changes in their environment affect population are still unknown.

Having surgically implanted transmitters into 120 female mallards earlier this year, the scientists have been using radio technology to monitor them during the breeding season.

The study is expected to take between three and four years, with data used to develop population models and fine-tune management of the resident game bird species.

Now they're nearly ready to move into the next phase -- tagging nesting ducks to get a better idea of nest success and brood survival in two research sites, one in Waikato and the other in Southland.

"We know that climate plays a massive role when it comes to changes in population, especially with the amount of good quality, seasonally-flooded wetland areas," Klee explains. "We've had four or five years of drought-like conditions and that's affected North Island populations, while changes in habitat also play a significant role."

He sweeps an arm across undulating, lush-green Waikato cattle country -- pastureland deep in the throes of calving.

"We've got a pretty homogenous landscape these days and in the last 20 years, it's probably had less to do with large wetland drainage and more to do with habitat degradation. Current land prices mean farmers are trying to get as much production out of their land as possible and I understand that completely but it also means we've lost a lot of nesting cover."

Initial studies last year showed that both nest success and brood survival was low, with predators, especially cats and hawks, playing a role and large numbers of ducks forced into "linear habitats" like drain banks.

All of which is a big change for self-confessed "bird nerd" Sheppard, who wrote her Masters' thesis on mallard habitat selection trade-offs while studying the vast Prairie Pothole Region in North America.

Covering parts of three Canadian provinces and five states of the US, the snow-fed Pothole wetlands are five times the size of the North Island and host more than 60 per cent of the continent's breeding ducks.

"In North America, they have more obvious nest predators," Sheppard, who arrived from the University of Saskatchewan on a Fish & Game scholarship in March, explains.

"One of the biggest drivers of nest and duckling failure is mink, raccoon and skunk threat, which you don't have here, but you have different predators and we're not entirely sure how they affect the duck population.

"The ducks here also have a bit more relaxed type of life cycle -- they don't have to migrate and they're not forced to nest the minute the snow's off the ground and have their ducklings able to fly by the time the next snow comes."

As well as Sheppard's intellectual experience, she's also brought with her a range of valuable contacts in the Canadian branch of Ducks Unlimited, a world leader in wetlands and waterfowl conservation.

Husband Simon is a more than capable field technician, while Sheppard is also supervised by Dr Todd Dennis (University of Auckland), Dr Todd Arnold (University of Minnesota) and Dr Courtney Amundson (Alaskan Wildlife Service).

Sheppard's Masters study was only one of more than 100 published papers taken from a massive eight-year study of the Pothole region and Klee hopes, if enough data can be gathered, to stimulate similar interest in New Zealand mallards.

"Providing that we collect the data well and get as much as we possibly can at this stage, we can keep coming back and reanalysing aspects of this study in five or 10 years time," Klee says.

That data collection means tracking ducks using a distinctive Mitsubishi ute fitted with a ground telemetry system and with a revolving aerial on the back and, every month or so, finding any missing birds using light airplanes.

On the ground and despite the pressures of calving, the scientists have discovered local cow-cockies are eager supporters.

"We've been blown away by the support we've had from local farmers and private landowners," Sheppard says.

"They're the most important aspect of the whole research project because without access we couldn't track the birds accurately. We know calving is an incredibly busy time around here but the rural community has been incredibly helpful and generous."

- By Jamie Troughton - Dscribe Media Services

(April 14, 2014)

Top Canadian duck researcher recruited for mallard team

Our PhD student Jenn Sheppard is here, enrolled at Auckland and settling in well. It’s been all action since she arrived as we needed to finalise study designs and order equipment, plus jump through all the hoops regarding animal ethics.

Meetings have been held with supervisors and avian surgeons at Auckland University in order to finalise our approach. Jenn has been able to acquire a lot of equipment from Ducks Unlimited Canada which will save us thousands, the amount of advice and information we are getting through external supervisors and researchers has also been priceless.

Pictured: Jenn Sheppard

On that topic, we are looking at flying one of our external supervisors, Dr. Courtney Amundson, over here for one month at the beginning of the field season to help with surgeries and impart her knowledge on the project. She is going to present on some of her work from the US to Fish & Game staff. Courtney and our other external supervisor, Dr. Todd Arnold, are considered international experts in the field of mallard breeding ecology so it is exciting to have researchers of this calibre visiting NZ. Courtney’s publications can be viewed here.

We are also looking for two volunteers and have advertised both within NZ and overseas. The six month posting will require long winter days in the field so we need someone that isn’t going to quit when the going gets a bit tough. We have budgeted to pay for the volunteer’s accommodation and food. The placing would ideally suit a recent graduate looking for work experience.

It is now a matter of contacting landowners and Fish and Game clubs to finalise study sites and get further assistance, especially with nest searches. If anyone has contacts for good pointer dogs based in the Hamilton or Southland area, please let the staff know. We are looking for hunters that are willing to take their dogs around farms/wetlands and find and mark out nest sites, preferably without flushing the hens. We would need to do some limited training to ensure protocols are followed and teach participant how to candle eggs (a method used to determine stage of incubation).

Other than that, we are constructing a myriad of different traps to catch the ducks both prior to breeding and on the nests. We also need to develop a mobile surgery field centre, get trained and permitted to conduct anaesthesiology, and build truck mounted telemetry systems prior to deployment in June.

Report by Auckland Waikato Fish & Game southern gamebird manager David Klee.

  • SATELLITE TRACKING

To view the recent movements of monitored birds click on the image below (you will need Google Earth to view).


Last updated: October 7, 2013

  • IN THE NEWS

Fish & Game investigates ducklings' fate - Stuff.co.nz

  • DUCK-U-MENTARY

Click here to view a short video production detailing part of Fish & Game's Mallard Research.

2. Standardising monitoring techniques

Perhaps the least 'sexy' of the mallard research projects, monitoring trends in mallard populations is nonetheless the foundation from which all other research and management responses are driven.

If we don't know what the population is doing how do we know when to intervene and whether any outcome is achieved.

Currently a handful of Fish & Game regions undertake an array of surveys to monitor fluctuations and longer term trends in mallard numbers within their boundaries.

It is the aim of this research project to establish mallard management areas based on mallard population boundaries rather than Fish & Game boundaries. The physical attributes of the area to be monitored, the precision of the information required, and decisions based on this will determine the technique.

  • LATEST UPDATE

A research outline has been produced providing options for identifying the annual status of mallard populations in Duck Management Units (DMU) across the country. Click here for more information.
 

3. Defining Mallard habitat characteristics for recriutment

  • LATEST UPDATE

Click here for details.

4. Modelling Harvest Regulation effectiveness

  • LATEST UPDATE

Click here for details.

5. Citizen science for reporting on mallard brood, survival and habitat

Click here for more details about this project.

  • LATEST UPDATE (April 15, 2014)

Operation Duck Pond has had some success over the past few months. We were able to get a webpage up describing the project.

We have also been running a Facebook page (link below) that had a great start with close to 100 (now at 120) 'likes' within the first weeks, after that we have been slowly climbing. We usually get 30-50 people who “saw” each post put on the site. The best was 506 people who saw an article on what Fish & Game is doing with floating nesting platforms.

There has been good media coverage with articles in the Fish & Game magazine, the Flight Magazine, and the Hunting and Fishing catalogue. Fish & Game's Public Awareness team have done a wonderful job assisting me on this part of the project. They also plan to filming a few segments in June both for promotion and also instructional.

We currently have eight ponds (4 Eastern, 1 Hawkes Bay, 1 North Canterbury, 1 Southland, and 1 Wellington). Based on enquiries we're receiiving, it's likely we will have more in the weeks to come.

Report compiled by Northland Fish & Game officer Nathan Burkepile.

'Operation Duck Pond is go! Check out the project's Facebook page here and get involved.

If you want to get involved by sending us some information or feedback, please email us.