Hay-Zama Lakes Waterfowl Staging and Bald Eagle Nesting Monitoring Program, 2013


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 was initiated in 1978 to moderate the potential impacts of these industrial activities by monitoring waterfowl density and distribution. The Hay-Zama Lakes Monitoring Program is directed by the Hay-Zama Committee, 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 is a member of the Hay-Zama Committee and has been monitoring migrating waterfowl and nesting bald eagles within the complex since 1997.

The primary purpose of the monitoring program is 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; which became the Alberta Energy Regulator midway through 2013 survey season but will be referred to as ERCB for the duration of this report) has the authority to suspend extraction activity. The density necessary to suspend industrial activity was defined by Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development 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 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 2013, I flew aerial surveys over the HZLC approximately seven days apart for four weeks in spring and for seven weeks in fall. Spring surveys commenced the second week of May 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 6 June 2013.

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 11 surveys, but congregations were below the threshold limit at all sites. The largest congregation of waterfowl within 30 m of an active well was 195 ducks in spring and 215 ducks in fall. Therefore, extraction activities were not suspended in 2013.

Throughout the HZLC, Canada goose (Branta canadensis) was the most abundant goose species observed during spring migration in 2013. Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), and to a lesser extent, northern pintail (A. acuta), and American widgeon (A. americana) were the most abundant of the identified duck species observed. The highest spring aggregate counts for both ducks (n = 18,181) and geese (n = 5,529) staging over the entire complex occurred during the first survey week in the spring (9 May), similar to long-term trends (1994 – 2012).

Canada goose was also the most abundant goose species observed during the fall migration in 2013. Mallard, and to a lesser extent, canvasback (Aythya valisineria), were the most abundant of the identified duck species observed. The highest fall aggregate count for both ducks (n = 46,821) and geese (n = 20,454) staging over the entire complex occurred during the third survey week in the fall (20 September), similar to long-term trends for geese and one week earlier for ducks.

Nine nesting pairs of bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) were located during the one-day survey in 2013. This is greater than the six nests observed in 2012 as well as the range observed during annual surveys since 1994 (three to eight nesting pairs). The number of eaglets observed in the active nests ranged from one to two.

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