November 03, 2010
The Canada's Micro Cousin: The Aleutian.
Well hidden in my camouflaged ground blind, I listened as Curt Wilson skillfully conversed with several hundred Aleutian Canada geese circling above our decoy spread. Curt's high pitched greeting calls and double clucks had the geese talking to themselves and the eight-dozen full body decoys which had been artfully deployed in a winter oat field on a cold, January morning.
A second elliptical circle had allowed the flock to position themselves downwind of the decoys. Evidently convinced that all was safe and secure within the green browse, the leading echelon cupped their wings and started the familiar parachute to terra firma.
"Let 'em land, let 'em land!" whispered Curt, knowing that such an action would pull the entire flock of geese into eye-popping, can't miss range.
The fact that we, and other California waterfowlers, would even think to be hunting Aleutian geese is a major tribute to the endangered species programs and North American waterfowl management strategies and regulatory oversight.
The Aleutian goose, one of the smallest subspecies of Canadas, weighing just four to five pounds, was formally abundant throughout Alaska's Aleutian Island chain, plus several eastern Asian islands. No historic population size was known, but early explorers described their numbers as abundant. Almost nothing was known about their annual migration patterns and wintering destinations.
The Aleutians' problem began when arctic and red foxes were released on their breeding grounds by Russian fur trappers in the 1700s. This practice was accelerated by American fur farms in the early 1900s, with foxes being stocked on virtually all of the Aleutian Island chain. The foxes quickly decimated the geese, which had no natural defenses against the land based predators on the previously mammal-free islands.
Preparing to land.
By the late 1930s the fur farming industry had collapsed and the fox populations (and goose predation levels) soared. By the 1950s, sightings of the Aleutian goose were rare, with some experts feeling the diminutive goose had become extinct.
As the first official refuge manager of the Aleutian Islands National Wildlife Refuge (originally established in 1903), Bob "Sea Otter" Jones and a dedicated crew began a 10 year task of removing the introduced foxes from Amchitka Island in the 1950s. His hope was that some Aleutians were still alive somewhere and could eventually repopulate Amchitka. During their fox removal work, a few geese were actually seen, but were evidently migrating further westward.
In 1962, Jones found a small remnant Aleutian goose population nesting on Buldir Island. This island, due to its distance from neighboring islands, its steep and rugged terrain, plus the lack of a safe anchorage, had never been stocked with foxes.
By 1967, the Aleutian goose was unofficially declared an endangered species. Formal listing occurred following congressional passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973. After this formal listing, efforts were intensified to learn more about habits, migration routes and wintering areas of this rare goose. Trapping and banding efforts were begun and band recoveries from the 1974/75 hunting season established that the Aleutians (approximately 800) wintered in northern and central California, primarily on private grazing and farmlands in the northern San Joaquin River valley (approximately 75 miles east of San Francisco). A smaller group of geese, which nested on Semidi Island, was found to be wintering near Pacific City, Oregon (approximately 70 miles west, south-west of Portland).
Once the Aleutian goose migration stops and terminal wintering areas were identified, federal and state wildlife officials established zones which prohibited the hunting of all Canada geese. At the same time, the key wintering areas began to be protected, either through the purchase of conservation easements or by the establishment of new federal and state refuges.
By 1991, the Aleutian goose population had rebounded to more than 7,000 birds after being in the mere hundreds in the 1970s. The goose was officially down-listed from endangered to threatened status, although hunting closures continued. Although the fox removal program was stopped after the down-listing, the geese had re-colonized 10 islands and their numbers jumped to more than 28,000 by 1998. Shortly, the process for delisting the Aleutian from a threatened species status was begun. As the goose flock numbers continued to increase (35,000 in 2001) and exceeded the original peak population goals, the Aleutian Canada goose was officially and formally removed from the endangered species list! This historic action represented the first time that an avian species on the list had met all required criteria necessary to deem it fully recovered!
The patience of California waterfowl hunters, who had long endured the regional closures of the hunting of all Canada geese (including a rapidly expanding flock of home-grown honkers) to prevent the accidental shooting of the rare Aleutian, was rewarded in 2002. For the next two seasons, a one Aleutian/day limit was allowed; while in 2004 (with the Aleutian population approaching 47,000), the limit was raised to two a day. In 2005, with the flock numbers climbing to 52,000, the limit was raised to four a day. With the most recent population levels estimated to be over 90,000 (exceeding the official objective of 60,000 set after delisting) and growing, the intensity of Aleutian goose hunting interest has taken off.
Speaking of goose hunting interest, I could easily see the prominent white neck rings on the closest geese dropping towards the decoys. My index finger tensed and I squeezed off three quick shots. Nothing fell, although my primary goal of capturing a flock of decoying Aleutians through my digital 35mm camera was a total success!
Curt, who had skillfully taken a triple from a previous flock, watched the geese lift up, make a higher circle over the field, then depart for a distant corn field. As the morning progressed, Dustin Curci and Curt managed to take several more Aleutians from small flocks that worked into our realistic setup.
A week later, hidden behind a hom
e-made burlap roll-up blind being buffeted by 15 to 20 mph winds, two other hunters and I had small flocks of Aleutians fight their way toward a mid-day roost site. Choked with corn, these birds wanted a drink and our mixed spread of small Canadas, specs, mallards and wigeon set on and around a shallow sandbar, spelled VACANCY to the winged travelers. Unfortunately, their hosts were waiting with 12 gauges, not room keys, and for some Aleutians, their destination was terminal!
One of the Aleutians, rocked hard by 3-inch steel #1s, flared into the wind, and struggled to maintain altitude before crashing dead 200 yards away. Upon retrieval, the goose sported a leg band. Based upon information from the Bird Banding Lab and a call to the goose bander, this Aleutian had been trapped and banded on California's north coast on March 30, 1990. The bander had also put a blue and white numbered leg band on the opposite leg to aid biologists gathering migration data; however, subsequent observations found that the colored band had been lost prior to 1994. This 16 year, 10-month old goose beat a banded Aleutian that I had taken the previous season by six months! Recognizing that thousands of these long-lived geese have been and are being banded (with many sporting colorful neck collars), the taking of a bejeweled Aleutian trophy would not be an impossibility.
To become more successful in hunting the Aleutian goose, hunters should understand the habits of this bird. The first Aleutians begin to arrive in the San Joaquin Valley during the first week of October. Within a month, nearly the entire North American continent's population has reached the wintering grounds.
Needing to regain fat reserves lost during the long, non-stop flight across the Pacific, the geese move into alfalfa and winter wheat fields. Rich in protein and highly digestible, the newly planted winter wheat fields attract hordes of hungry geese. Much of the food supply is grown on private lands, thus pre-season scouting and the obligatory landowner contact will be the key to success.
Once permission has been obtained, the decoy spread should be set near the last observed goose feeding location. Based upon the presence of goose feathers and droppings and with wind direction factored into the equation, the ground blinds (camouflaged with sufficient quantities of winter wheat or synthetic grass) should be placed accordingly.
As with other small goose species (including Ross'), the Aleutians tend to concentrate in large flocks and will usually be out of acceptable shooting range when flying from roost sites to feeding areas. Thus, the largest and most realistic decoy spread will enhance hunter opportunity. Aleutians will react well to calling; however, it will be imperative to use those calls which duplicate the high pitched range of small Canada sounds.
During the late fall and early winter months, the geese switch to a high carbohydrate diet (primarily corn). This dietary change occurs during the time period that farmers begin harvesting their corn within the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta. Located 40 miles northwest of the Aleutians' primary wintering area (west of Modesto), the Delta is one of the most fertile agricultural areas in California, containing over 50,000 acres of corn, 1,500 acres of rice and 7,000 acres of seasonal wetlands.
More than 60,000 Aleutians can be found within the Delta during November, gleaning kernels of waste corn as they follow the mechanical harvesters from field to field. Hunters lucky enough to gain access to these private farmlands, or who may be members or guests of the exclusive Delta duck clubs, have just begun to profit from this new waterfowl hunting opportunity.
Whether hunting from decoys within the corn stubble, or from camouflaged blinds scattered throughout managed wetlands or within flooded corn, the Delta is the top spot for consistently killing Aleutian Canada geese. Based upon band recoveries, which have tripled within the last three seasons, it is estimated that several thousand Aleutians are regularly being taken from this area.
Splinter groups of Aleutians are also moving into the southern portion of the San Joaquin Valley, feeding or roosting within both private duck clubs and public refuges and wildlife management areas. Although most of the Aleutians are incidentally taken by duck hunters, progressive waterfowlers are beginning to add small Canada goose decoys to their spreads and hanging appropriate goose calls on their lanyards.
By January, the Aleutians return to the green browse, seeking new sprouts of clovers and annual grasses, or winter wheat and alfalfa, rejuvenated by rainfall and warmer temperatures. During this period, conditions are often perfect for the formation of tule fog, a sunlight-choking, grey funk, hated by daily commuters, but welcomed by Valley waterfowlers. Lost in the fog, but driven by the need for energy, flocks of Aleutians, white-fronts, snows and Ross' converse in a mixed symphony of honks, yodels and murmurs.
Reacting more quickly to hunters' calls, plus becoming more responsive to decoy spreads (especially those containing small groups of highly visible snow geese), the task of bringing large flocks of Aleutians into close range becomes a bit easier. Foggy skies, especially when coupled with a cold wind, can also create excellent pass shooting opportunities for Aleutians trading to and from wetland roosts and prime feeding areas.
Some Aleutians begin moving to their spring staging areas in January, with the majority of the flock being present by late February. Settling into a 70-mile long stretch of coastline between Humboldt Bay and Crescent City (with some geese using the southwest Oregon coastline), the birds descend upon privately owned, intensively grazed coastal pasture lands and associated ponds and slough channels. Viewed as non-threatening by dairy farmers during the early years, the Aleutian Canada geese are now thought of by many as winged locusts, virtually capable of devouring their livelihood.
Although limited hunting has been allowed on these pastures (an estimated 1,200 Aleutians were taken during the 04-05 season), extensive and expensive goose hazing, using ultra-light aircraft, ATVs, propane exploders, and dogs, must be deployed to protect the cattle forage within this isolated portion of California.
Responding to the rising number of goose depredation complaints, while recognizing the benefits of a viable Aleutian Canada goose population, official action was taken during 2006.
"We made a strong case to the Pacific Flyway Council," stated Dan Yparraguirre, a wildlife biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game, "with the final result being the authorization by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of a 15-day, four Aleutian only/day special season, from February 24 through March 10, on private lands only."
A couple white-collared geese for the table.
Although the final estimates have not been made, it appears that up to 2,000 Aleutians were harvested from the coastal area during the 2006-07 season (including the special season). Certainly a valiant effort when one considers the scarcity of cover within the short grass pastures and wary, but hungry geese.
Curt Wilson, who participated in the special season hunt with limited success, summed up his experience. "Our party only killed 10 geese during the weekend, but the sunny skies were constantly filled with thousands of geese and the backdrop was the blue Pacific Ocean. Sure beats lying in the snow at 10 below waiting for a flock of honkers!"
Aleutians are the future of small Canada goose hunting within California's Central Valley and North Coast. According to Yparraguirre, "It will be a continued balancing act to maintain the appropriate number of Aleutians wintering in California to sustain high quality hunting and wildlife observation opportunities, while holding down economic hardships to farmers."
"Our goal," stated Yparraguirre, "is to keep the Aleutian goose in California. The last thing we, or Oregon farmers want, is to force the Aleutians north, thus following similar conditions which resulted in the short stopping of the cackling, lesser and Taverner's Canada goose populations which historically wintered in California."
As the Aleutian Canada geese expand their nesting efforts throughout their chain of fox-free islands and their numbers remain high, hunters will gear up as hunters always do, and take their rightful role in the management of a once-unthinkable waterfowl surplus.