white-faced ibis with radio transmitter backpack
White-faced ibis with radio transmitter backpack. Photo by John Vradenburg, USFWS

Written by Andrea Mott, Biologist, U.S. Geological Survey

Indicator Species of the West

Seen commonly in wetlands and flooded agricultural fields throughout the west, the White-faced Ibis (Plegadis chihi) is easily recognizable by its subtly beautiful iridescent plumage and comically long bill. The ibis has become the poster child for biological diversity among the arid and semi-arid wetland habitats being threatened by climate change. The ibis use these wetlands throughout the year to breed, overwinter, and use as stopover sites during migration. Spearheaded by the Intermountain West Joint Venture, University of Montana, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an effort to deploy solar powered GPS-GSM transmitters (GPS data transferred from transmitter to a website via cell phone towers) on ibis throughout 8 western states, to get real time habitat use. By identifying critical areas of use, conservation efforts can be made to help maintain these important habitats not only for the ibis, but for multiple other species that rely on the same type of environment.

To catch an Ibis:

Leading into the pilot season of this study, how to actually catch an ibis was the big question on everybody’s mind. Thankfully, ibis share the same fondness for wetlands as thousands of ducks using the wetlands for a similar purpose. So, we took a page out of waterfowl trapping 101 and used an airboat at night to scoop them up with a net. As ludicrous as it sounds, zooming around on an airboat at night with a spotlight and net is a very effective trapping method. I can only really equate it to a deer-in-headlights type situation. Thousands of ducks are trapped and banded each summer using this method to help inform harvest rates, movement, and bag limits.

Go time:

It was during one of these duck banding airboat nights at Malheur NWR that gave us the opportunity to catch some ibis. Thanks to the generous funding from the Friends of Malheur NWR, 6 transmitters were allocated to be deployed right on the refuge. After a short briefing on how to catch an ibis in a net, with emphasis on being gentle and extra mindful of their long spindly legs, the airboats roared off into the night. My expectations were low as this was not my first ibis rodeo and had had mixed rates of success at other refuges earlier in the summer. However, the first airboat came back and as they were unloading the crates of ducks, I hear someone yell, “we’ve got 3 ibis for you!” I quickly grabbed my equally dubious ibis assistant, Cory (Wildlife technician, Klamath Marsh NWR), the 3 ibis, and the transmitters. With my workstation already set up, we got to work. I took various morphometric measurements to help confirm sex and body condition. When it came time for the transmitter attachment, I assured the ibis that I had done this many times before, placed the transmitter on its back, and secured it with a harness. The whole set up has a vague semblance of an ibis wearing a little backpack. The remaining 3 trickled in over the next few hours. I wished them luck and each ibis was brought back to where it was captured. Cory and I breathed a sigh of relief that the job was done. We headed to our beds as the first suggestion of dawn started to appear.

Aerial map of Malheur NWR with line indicating ibis movement
White-faced ibis movements at Malheur NWR. GPS points collected from one of transmitter deployent. Map created by Andrea Mott
Bill measurement taken with calipers on white-faced ibis. Tiny dino-print baby sock on the ibis’s head to keep the ibis calm during processing. Photo by John Vradenburg