U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
PILOT BIOLOGISTS—OUR EYES IN THE SKY
Taking the Pulse of North America’s Waterfowl for More Than 50 Years
Unique Wildlife Stewards In the spring of 1955, the FWS and its
Frederick C. Lincoln, a biologist with the cooperators launched the first coordi-
Biological Survey, forerunner to the nated waterfowl survey of the North
Fish and Wildlife Service, is credited American breeding grounds. From then with being the first to envision the use on, this annual survey effort and its of airplanes as a tool in waterfowl man-results have been instrumental in agement. In 1931 he persuaded the U.S. guiding the North American waterfowl Army to take him and a photographer management program. on a test flight over wintering waterfowl on the Potomac River below From Office to Wilderness Washington, DC. This test proved The life of the pilot-biologist is demand-successful and for the next 20 years, ing. Aerial surveying is one of the most increasingly more aerial surveys were challenging types of flying. Not only conducted. These surveys were pieced does the pilot-biologist fly the aircraft together through arrangements with at reduced speed while skimming the U.S. Coast Guard, Navy, and Army to low-level above terrain; avoiding trees, carry observers, called flyway biologists, hills, towers, other planes, and even the on routine flights to inventory wintering low-flying birds they are there to count; waterfowl in the United States. They they must do this while staying on a were occasionally supplemented by straight line transect, identifying and chartered aircraft and private pilots counting 30 or more species of water-for areas in Canada and Mexico. fowl, ensuring the data are being
recorded by an on-board computer The aerial survey program saw its or audio cassette recorder, and coordingreatest expansion just after World ating the activities of one or more War II when the FWS acquired surplus observers. This multitasking is the military aircraft. Military-trained pilots, normal routine for several hours per day, usually with prior wildlife or conserva-for days and sometimes weeks at a time. tion experience, were hired as flyway Just like point-to-point pilots, survey biologists, now also known as pilot-pilot-biologists must closely monitor
biologists. The combination weather forecasts and carefully plan
of skilled pilot-biolo-fuel loads and weight and balances. gists and an However, pilot-biologists are required availability ofto spend more time understanding aircraft weather forecasts because they often enabled sur-travel to locations where there are no
vey pioneers weather reporting stations. A critical to experiment error in judging weather in these remote
with spring areas may mean a night spent on a counts on water-wilderness lake. Before the day ends, fowl breeding pilot-biologists are also responsible for
grounds in the maintaining and fueling their aircraft north-central U.S. and and coordinating data collection and Canada during the late reporting activities with their observers,
1940s and early ’50s. and in some cases ground survey teams. Together, they transcribe, check, and back-up data, as well as decide on the next day’s activities. Todd Harless/USFWS
Erwin and Peggy Bauer/USFWS When not
flying surveys, pilot-biologists are back in the office compiling the results of surveys; writing summary reports for international distribution; procuring equipment and assessing staffing needs for future surveys and waterfowl banding stations; completing individual pilot safety check rides and scheduled maintenance on their planes; and attending species and habitat meetings with FWS personnel, other Federal, State, or international agencies, and nongovernmental organizations and partners.
Education and Training
While the most critical phase of the job is learning to safely fly important missions and many individuals possess the skills necessary to become pilots, all successful candidates must obtain training as wildlife biologists to become part of the waterfowl aerial survey team. All pilot-biologists within the FWS Migratory Bird Program have earned at least a Bachelor’s degree in biological sciences or a more specific natural resource discipline. Most have obtained a Master’s or PhD in their respective fields. All achieve the minimum of a commercial pilot certificate with instrument flight privileges and at least 500 hours flight time when beginning, but often go on to obtain seaplane and sometimes multi-engine ratings. With the onslaught of new technologies in recent years, pilot-biologists are continually updating their skills as well as maintaining working knowledge in Geographic Information Systems, remote sensing techniques, and statistical design. In addition, tightened security measures have required even greater familiarity with Federal Air Regulations and continued diligence for those pilots operating within congested or restricted airspaces.
Demands, Thrills, and Rewards
The demands placed upon these pilot-biologists are great. The technical aspects of the surveys alone require tremendous skill and concentration coupled with decisiveness and impeccable judgment in handling the aircraft, but the demands go beyond these. The pilots must go where the waterfowl go and be there at the precise times that the waterfowl should be counted. Survey areas are often hundreds of miles from home and family, and survey crews often find themselves out of phone contact and overnighting in makeshift lodging. Personal lives and families take a back seat for days, weeks, and sometimes months as pilot-biologists, aerial observers, and ground crews measure the waterfowl migration, wait out weather, or go from one survey to another. Once home, they still have to compile and analyze data and write scientifically valid reports. Many have the additional responsibilities of being project leaders for Waterfowl Management Field Stations, run banding camps, attend species and habitat joint venture meetings, lend their expertise on a variety of migratory bird issues, and more.
Very few people are willing to take on the challenges posed by this demanding schedule, but those who do cannot imagine doing anything else. There are few jobs that combine so much raw adventure with fascinating technical challenges and frequent opportunities to unravel scientific mysteries. For the most part, the FWS pilot-biologists have found ways to blend the demands of a personally rewarding career with those necessary to be a good spouse or parent.
Rewards are found in safely compiling a quality survey data set and knowing that the numbers generated from surveys of a particular migratory bird will help perpetuate that species or help implement scientific actions that protect it from becoming endangered. There is also satisfaction in knowing that the demanding efforts to band 5,000 ducks in a month or neck band 1,000 geese in a week will help many biologists throughout the waterfowl flyways make informed management decisions in the best interest of the birds.
Safety and Service
Although serving as a pilot-biologist requires taking some risk, every effort is made to ensure the safety of these missions including intense training and strict operating protocols. As a result, the survey pilot-biologists have wracked up an impressive safety record over the years. The migratory bird pilot-biologists that currently conduct spring and summer waterfowl surveys have amassed a combined total of more than 250 years of FWS flight experience and more than 75,000 hours of safe flying, without a fatality. They have done all of this flying low-level in some of the most remote areas of North and Central America as well as some of the highest density flight traffic environs of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Over the span of the past half century, some 25 other FWS pilot-biologists have held the honor and amassed an additional and equallyimpressive number of flight hours and tenure of flight safety.
For 50 years and still counting, the Fish and Wildlife Service pilot-biologists have been our eyes in the sky taking the pulse of North America's waterfowl.
For More Information
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Division of Migratory Bird Management 4401 North Fairfax Drive, MS 4107 Arlington, Virginia 22203 703/358 1714 http://waterfowlsurveys.fws.gov
Paul Keywood/USFWS December 2004
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