Hay-Zama Lakes Waterfowl Staging and Bald Eagle Nesting Monitoring Program, 2011


Ken D. Wright


The Hay-Zama Lakes Complex (HZLC), located in the Boreal Forest Central Mixedwood Natural Subregion of Alberta, Canada, is an internationally recognized critical staging and nesting area for waterfowl and shorebirds. Numerous oil and gas producing wells located within the HZLC pose a risk to the aquatic ecosystem. The Hay-Zama Lakes Monitoring Program (HZLMP) was initiated in 1978 to moderate the potential impacts of these industrial activities by monitoring waterfowl density and distribution. The HZLMP is directed by the Hay-Zama Committee (HZC), and functions as a cooperative venture supported by a group of stakeholders representing the oil and gas industry, federal, provincial and municipal government agencies, First Nations and conservation groups. The Alberta Conservation Association (ACA) is a member of the HZC and has been monitoring migrating waterfowl and nesting bald eagles within the complex since 1997.

The primary purpose of the monitoring program was to survey waterfowl densities in close proximity to the producing oil and gas wells within the HZLC. If a large congregation of waterfowl is detected near a well site, the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) has the authority to suspend extraction activity. The density necessary to suspend industrial activity was defined by Alberta Sustainable Resource Development (ASRD) at a threshold of 600 ducks and/or geese within a 30 m radius of a well site. Waterfowl monitoring occurs during spring and fall migration periods (approximately 15 April to 31 May and 15 August to 15 October) in compliance with the ERCB (formerly Alberta Energy and Utilities Board (EUB)) directive for this complex.

Secondary objectives were to estimate the number of staging waterfowl within the HZLC during the two migration periods, and to conduct a one day survey of bald eagle nests, adults, and eaglets along a pre-existing survey route within the HZLC. In 2011, aerial surveys were flown over the HZLC approximately seven days apart for five weeks in spring, and seven weeks in fall. Spring surveys commenced the final week of April immediately after ice break-up on the complex, while fall surveys commenced the first week of September. The survey route covered all producing wells in the  complex to monitor waterfowl numbers at the well sites, as well as additional transects throughout the complex to estimate staging waterfowl numbers. A single aerial survey for bald eagle nest sites within the HZLC was flown on 7 June 2011.

Waterfowl congregations were surveyed near 20 active wells on 13 sites within the HZLC (four sites contained multiple wells). Waterfowl were observed at 10 of these sites on at least one occasion over the 12 surveys, but congregations were below the threshold limit at all sites. The largest congregation of waterfowl within 30 m of an active well was 26 ducks in spring and 320 ducks in fall. Therefore, extraction activities were not suspended in 2011.

Throughout the HZLC, Canada goose (Branta canadensis) was the most abundant goose species observed during spring migration in 2011. Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), and to a lesser extent, northern pintail (A. acuta), were the most abundant of the identified duck species observed (11% of ducks were unidentified). The highest aggregate counts for both ducks and geese staging over the entire complex occurred during the second survey week in the spring (5 May), one week later than long-term trends (1994 – 2010). Canada goose was also the most abundant goose species observed during the fall migration in 2011. Mallard, and to a lesser extent, green-winged teal (Anas crecca) and gadwall (A. strepera), were the most abundant of the identified duck species observed (7.7% of ducks were unidentified). The highest aggregate count of geese staging over the entire complex occurred during the fourth survey week in the fall (22 September), later than long-term trends. The highest aggregate count for ducks occurred during the third survey week (15 September), earlier than long-term trends.

Six nesting pairs of bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) were located during the one-day survey in 2011. This is lower than the eight nests observed in 2010, but within the range observed during annual surveys since 1994 (three to eight nesting pairs). The number of eaglets observed in four of the active nests, ranged from one to three. The remaining two active nests each contained two eggs and a brooding adult.

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