Speciator? Wingbee? Ways We Count Waterfowl

woman in red plaid shirt, camo pants and hat, sunglasses on hat holds a duck
Stephanie knew early in her career that she did not want to do anything unless it involved waterfowl. Photo by USFWS

Hi! I’m Stephanie Catino, the Atlantic Flyway Speciator. Yes I know, that sounds like a fictitious title. So what exactly IS a speciator? Good question! When I accepted the job three years ago, I also had no idea what I was getting myself into…

As the speciator, I am responsible for receiving waterfowl parts from all the states along the Atlantic Coast (including Vermont and West Virginia) and determining what species of waterfowl it is from based solely on the wing characteristics. But why are we even getting wings in the mail?

It’s part of our long-term survey, the Parts Collection Survey (PCS), more commonly referred to as the wing survey. The survey asks a sample of hunters across the country to provide a wing from each duck and specified feathers from every goose they harvest during the season, which generally runs from September to January but varies by state. These “parts” are used to determine species, age, and sex composition of the annual waterfowl harvest. The data provides the necessary information for mangers to make decisions about harvest limits.

deSk with envelopes and stamps in front of shelves with boxes and bulletin board of wings
deSk with envelopes and stamps in front of shelves with boxes and bulletin board of wings
Stephanie gets about 20,000 parts per season. Photo by USFWS

Each hunter is provided prepaid envelopes to mail their parts, which are addressed to a central collection point of the four flyways. At each of these four locations is a speciator, the expert that processes the envelopes, identifies the species, and reports data on each and every wing that is submitted. That’s me! In the Atlantic Flyway alone, we receive about 20,000 parts per season! That is many envelopes to open, and even more data to enter.

After all the parts are speciated, they are sorted and stored in the freezer until the wingbee. The wingbee is an annual event where waterfowl biologists from the states within the flyway and federal government gather for a week to look over all the parts that were collected. We have four waterfowl wingbees (one for each of the flyways; Atlantic, Mississippi, Central, and Pacific), a dove wingbee, and a woodcock wingbee.

At this event, each wing is inspected by a participant to determine the age and sex and then passed over to another set of eyes, this person is called a “checker” (they are very knowledgeable, and some have been aging and sexing duck wings by wing plumage for over 30 years!) who verifies the information they recorded is correct. It takes us about a week per wingbee to go through all the parts and enter the data.

We asked Stephanie to tell us about what it’s like to be a speciator.

My favorite part of my job would have to be when I get to communicate with the hunters. I also love being able to really look at a duck wing, and inspect all of its intricate and fine details. It really makes you pause and respect the beauty of birds. In addition, you never know what you will get in an envelope. It is always fun to get a hybrid or leucistic duck wing! A hybrid is a cross between two duck species, and leucistic means some or all feathers are very pale in color or white because of a lack of pigmentation.

So the process actually starts in July and August, before the season opens, when a bunch of Service staff pack thousands of packages of envelopes for the hunters in the survey. When the hunters ship them back, the mail carrier graciously delivers bags of envelopes to our walk-in freezer. From there, I sort the envelopes, which contain everything from goose tails and wing tips to waterfowl, woodcock, rail, and dove wings. Once they are sorted, I’ll enter the front-end data (where and when the bird was shot and double check that the hunter that was selected for the survey actually sent in the envelope) and then I’ll scan them in our system again to verify that I entered that data correctly. Next is the really fun part — determining the waterfowl species in each envelope. I get all the fun sea ducks like black scoters, surf scoters, common eiders, and long-tailed ducks!

Probably distinguishing between the female and juveniles for canvasbacks and redheads. It takes a while for my eye to adjust to the subtle differences between the two, so I’ll try to save them and speciate them all at once.

I use the “blue bible” as we call it: Species, Age, and Sex Identification of Ducks Using Wing Plumage by Samuel Carney. I swear I read the paragraph distinguishing red-breasted mergansers and common mergansers hundreds of times each season.

It varies, 100–2,000, depending on what seasons are open, and normally we get the most per week in January since some hunters save them until the end of the season.

Yes, for the past two seasons I had the help of retired FWS biologist Frank McGilvery. He recently passed away and is very dearly missed. I also get help from a few interns each season — they are normally the hunting control station interns from the Patuxent Research Refuge.

bulletin board with waterfowl wings and acronyms of waterfowl
bulletin board with waterfowl wings and acronyms of waterfowl
The Wingboard helps Stephanie teach about wings. Photo by USFWS

I also do a presentation to the local Youth Conservation Corps, and this year I had a Directorate Fellow for a week. It is really rewarding to teach young biologists about waterfowl management and the Migratory Bird Program. Hopefully it sparks an interest in waterfowl!

It is really rewarding work, knowing that the data we are collecting is making a direct impact on North American waterfowl management and conserving our natural resources for the people and birds.

Before coming to the service, I worked for USDA-Wildlife Services in New York City managing the resident Canada goose population, and prior to that I worked for the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife in their Waterfowl Management program mainly banding American black ducks and mallards. That is where I really fell in love with ducks and the marsh. I knew from that point on I did not want to do anything unless it involved waterfowl.

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