Banded birds are cool. But some are off-the-charts cool. Carson Mackey of Selah, Washington, found this out after recovering a drake pintail banded in Japan on the final weekend of the 2021-22 waterfowl season. Mackey, 24, was hunting with a group of friends not far from Moses Lake in central Washington. The group had already had good shoots Friday and Saturday, so there wasn’t much pressure for the Sunday hunt. “We’d started off strong,” says Mackey. “So this last day was going to be just a finale sort of thing.”
On Saturday, the group was hunting geese. Halfway through the day, Mackey took off to do some scouting. He found a field filled with mallards and pintails, located the landowner, and secured permission for himself and his crew. “We were guessing there were around 10,000 mixed birds in that field,” he says “And we were going to give ‘er hell.”
Before daylight, the guys set 20 dozen full-body decoys. It was foggy, and they weren’t sure the birds were going to fly. But around 11:30 a.m., they heard pintail whistles. “We hopped into the blinds, got covered up, and started hammering on our duck calls,” says Mackey. The first bunch of ducks dropped out of the fog, made one pass, circled, went out about 150 yards, and then came right in.
When the smoke cleared, eight bull sprig lay in the stubble—and one of them had some special jewelry. “My buddy Colter hopped out of his blind,” Mackey recalls. “And I hear him say quietly ‘hey, Dawson. Look at this!’ He holds up this banded pintail and hollers—‘It’s from Tokyo!’”
Mackey says he and buddies had recently been talking about banded birds from distant parts of the world—but never expected to actually see one. The drake pintail they killed in central Washington was banded in Japan in 2015. The hunters didn’t know exactly who downed the banded bird during the volley. They drew numbers out of a hat to decide who would take it—and Mackey’s friend Charlie won. Coincidentally, the sprig had been banded on January 8, which is also Charlie’s birthday.
How Did the Pintail Make it to the Pacific Northwest?
Brad Bortner, now retired, was the chief of the Division of Migratory Bird Management for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for over 6 years. Prior to that, he was the regional chief of migratory birds and habitat programs for the USFWS Portland, Oregon office for 19 years. Bortner says he found out about the banded pintail after Mackey took the bird to a local taxidermist to be mounted.
“It’s rare to find a bird so far from where it was banded,” says Bortner. “I’ve been aware of such things happening in the past, both in Washington state and elsewhere in the Pacific Flyway. In fact, my former boss shot a pintail that had been banded in Japan 20 years ago.”
According to Bortner, there have only been 22 Japanese-banded birds reported in the U.S. in the past 60 years, with some of those recovered as far south as Arkansas. According to the banding data on the Washington duck, it’s only the 4th pintail from Japan ever recovered in Washington.
But how did it get to the Pacific Northwest? According to Bortner, pintails inhabit wetlands in both the Eastern and Western hemispheres and are usually found in the northern regions of both. Pintails in North America are known to fly over the prairies in Canada and continue on to the North Slope of Alaska and even Siberia on their spring migrations, especially during dry years. Japanese pintails also breed in Siberia. “More than likely,” the former chief said, “this drake pintail was in Siberia during the breeding season, and followed a group of American pintails down into the U.S. via the Pacific Flyway.”
Banding birds is a common practice that helps scientists identify the wintering areas and migration routes used by ducks. According to the banding info, the bull sprig had been banded in the city of Tokyo—at the Shinhama Kamoba Imperial Wild Duck Sanctuary, which is “used by domestic and foreign guests by the gracious permission of His Majesty the Emperor.” The Sanctuary is operated under the country’s Ministry of the Environment.
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Four thousand, nine hundred, and thirty-one miles. That’s approximately how far Tokyo, Japan is from Moses Lake, Washington. It’s a long trip, especially when you consider the roundabout route the pintail likely took, but it was apparently a doable one for this stud bull sprig.