JULY 18, 2003
My name is Jim Wortham. I am a Flyway Biologist, pilot. Wortham is spelled W-O-R-T-
My name is Jim Wortham. I am a Flyway Biologist/Pilot for the Migratory Bird Office
within the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I have been doing this for about eight years
now. I am part of a group of eleven Flyway Biologist/Pilots and we cover pretty much
the continent of North America following and assessing the populations of migratory
birds; primarily waterfowl; and assessing habitat conditions across all Canada, the U.S.,
Mexico and sometimes into Central America.
During the course of our surveys we survey the migratory bird populations and assess
habitats. And during the course of the surveys we generally fly low-level, much of the
time where we can be low enough to identify and actually enumerate different flocks of
birds that we encounter. We also fly at different altitudes just assessing landscapes and
habitats at difference scales. We do this both on coastals, inlands, up in the bush country
of Canada and Alaska.
The data captured by our surveys are used in a number of research and science oriented
applications, all the way from establishment of the annual hunting regulations and season
limits for migratory birds; and also different research projects use our data for settling
patterns of birds across landscapes or sometimes our data is used for acquisition,
assessment or identification of important habitats that may become wildlife refuges in the
Data captured as a result of our surveys are used by a number of partners in some of
these applications. Different state agencies, non-government organizations like Ducks
Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy; people like that. There’s also some joint ventures
that are made up by a number of partners that use the data as far as how to orient their
research applications. Our data is also used by universities in cooperative wildlife
research units and used by a number of graduate programs, and also NASA in some
respects, for their landscape applications.
A lot of our surveys are mandated by our Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 that the
U.S. is a strong cooperator in, and it’s important that our data are accurate because we’re
working in a big natural laboratory and there’s enough uncontrollable factors that go into
it that the one’s that we can control we need to be very precise in measuring.
It’s important that the data we capture be accurate because we’re working in a vast
natural laboratory and there’s enough factors that we can’t control whatsoever, so the
ones we can, it’s important that we do get a good handle on those.
It’s important that the date we generate by accurate, and approached in a scientific manor
because a lot of our surveys are mandated by the International Migratory Bird Treaty Act
of 1918, which the U.S. is a very strong cooperator in. These data are used in setting
hunting regulations and season limits throughout Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. We
operate in a vast natural laboratory and there’s a lot of factors that are uncontrollable on
our part so it’s important that the factors that we can control, we do so as precise as we
are able to.
A lot of times the data generated from our surveys are the only measure as to whether our
management practices are working or not. We can really severely damage the population
and not have an accurate measure…
A lot of times the data from our surveys are the only measure that management practices
are working or not. We are able to detect early on whether we could be damaging a
population of a particular species of migratory bird; or determine new settling patterns
that are the effect of some adverse habitat conditions that are a result of something that
man was doing in some part of the country.
A lot of times, the data from our surveys are the only measure whatsoever that our
management decisions are working, or not. We can determine if, early on, whether a
particular species or a population of a particular species is increasing or decreasing; or
that if settling patterns of different birds have changed. A lot of times the Flyway
Biologist/Pilots are the eyes and ears of the Fish and Wildlife Service. We’re the ones that
are able to see this on a broad scale.
Our primary tools on our surveys are our specially modified aircraft. These aircraft are
designed to fly low and slow and give us good visibility as far as being able to identify
birds on the ground, different habitats, things like that. We also use a number of remote
sensing tools; either aerial reconnaissance photography or different infrared imaging,
things of that nature. We’ve also looked at different types of moving maps to track the
movements of the birds along their migration.
Because the work that we are doing is so unique and requires such specialized tools
sometimes, it is important that the people doing the job be trained in scientific method
and how to use these different tools. A lot of times a guy will be balancing a lot of
different fields of knowledge while doing one task at a time; flying an airplane, operating
some remote imagery equipment, being able to assess habitats and where birds are likely
to be at that given time and day.
Because the work we do is so unique and requires such specialized tools, it’s important
that we have people operating these tools that approach it in a scientific method, and
have been trained scientifically. A lot of times one person will be doing one task, but in
the course of that task he’ll be balancing a lot of different technologies; operating an
aircraft, communicating with an air traffic control system, using their biological knowledge
to determine where the birds are and where the habitats are that need to be assessed. At
the same time they are operating remote sensing equipment.
Because the work that we are doing is so unique and requires such specialized tools, the
individual performing that work needs to be versed in a lot of different technologies at
once. Very commonly I find myself flying the aircraft low and slow, communicating with
air traffic control, operating aerial remote imagery equipment and at that same time
assessing habitats and looking for birds and where those birds might be at that given time.
This all turns back to whenever you get back into the office or the laboratory and be able
to analyze and assess all the information captured in a scientific way so that you don’t
draw false conclusions from what you’ve gathered.
If feel very lucky to be part of a team of Flyway Biologist/Pilots and be part of a rich
history now spanning fifty years of doing these surveys. We have a very unique job
within the Fish and Wildlife Service that covers the continent as a whole. And we look at
it at that scale and also smaller scales within. We’ve done this for fifty years without
fatalities due to aircraft crashes and a lot of the guys and women in the job are balancing a
lot of different technologies and knowledges. At times it can be a very harrowing job, and
it can be a stressful job, but it’s one that can be very rewarding in the long run.
Throughout the history of our group, and these surveys there’s been some consistencies
in that we’re still operating in the bush, we’re still landing airplanes in the water, we’re
still in remote camps. But at the same time there’s been evolution as far as, primarily in
technologies. Aircraft have evolved and air traffic patterns have evolved as far as air
space limitations and things like that. Also some of the equipment that we’re carrying
aboard and some of the limitations thereof. And also the needs of the customers that
we’re gathering and capturing data for have changed. So we need to be much more
sophisticated as far as how we approach that, and how that data is used.
I feel very proud and very lucky to be part of this history. I have continued to learn
things from some of the new people joining our group and I continue to get berated and
learned things from some of the guys that have retired from our group. There’s always
something new to be learned about landing on a lake somewhere out in the bush and some
little twist or trick you can learn. There’s certainly a lot to learn as far as the new
technologies go. I enjoy the challenges and I love the aspects of being on a continental
scale, seeing it all from the air. A lot of times you feel like you are the only one up there.
But you know that there have been a lot of guys before you that have left good footprints
One rewarding aspect of our work is knowing that you’re providing data for a lot of
people and a lot of different applications. We go to different scientific conferences and
meet some of our colleagues who are on the ground all of the time. But to see how the
data is used to further the natural resource and benefit the Fish and Wildlife Service can be
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