A Bonners Ferry man has the unusual distinction of winning a top prize in a Ducks Unlimited waterfowling photo contest without being able to identify the birds in the picture.
Steve Jamsa won the Best Overall runner-up award in the 2014 DU magazine contest with a photo of a teal flock banking into a turn on a North Idaho wetland.
But the caption under the photo does not mention the species of the birds, and Jamsa doesn’t know for sure either.
“Most people say they’re blue-winged teal, but they can’t be sure,” he said.
Jamsa is no rookie at bird identification. Since retiring in 1991 as an Idaho Department of Lands firefighter, he’s worked with the Fish and Game Department at the Boundary Creek and McArthur wildlife management areas as well as on projects at the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge.
As well as being a lifelong waterfowl hunter, Jamsa has held many birds of many species over the years while helping capture birds for banding studies.
“I often go to those areas for photos because they have such good habitat and a lot of birds,” says Jamsa, an accomplished wildlife photographer. But this particular image was shot near Bonners Ferry, not far from his home.
The photo has significance beyond being a pretty picture.
“The birds are on a seasonal wetland,” he said, noting that their presence indicates the importance of preserving areas for waterfowl even if they do not hold surface water year-round.
Seasonal wetlands alternate from being inundated to going dry, allowing vegetation to flourish and then become submerged and available to waterfowl. “They are especially important during migrations,” he said.
Jamsa had teal on his mind more than usual last summer as wildlife biologists launched a banding study of cinnamon teal throughout the Pacific Northwest.
A drawdown for repairs at one of the ponds on the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge had created ideal shallow-water summer conditions to attract cinnamons.
“Normally I might band four or five cinnamons during a season, but last year I banded 175,” he said.
“They’re not molting when we band in July, but they can be caught. We use a funnel trap baited with corn and barley. They swim in and the trap is designed so they can’t find their way out.”
Then the workers drive them into a box, record data on each bird, clamp bands on their legs and release them back into the wild.
This work has given him an up-close and personal look at the birds that leads to his reluctance to identify the species of teal in his DU contest photo.
“Cinnamon teal (males) are pretty bright in May, but by mid-June I’m guessing at which is which,” he said, noting the birds transform from breeding plumage to eclipse plumage. “By the time we’re running duck banding in the last week of July, you cannot tell the difference between cinnamon teal and bluewings visually.”
Teal replace their breeding plumage later than most other ducks, usually in December or later.
“In early fall, the blue-wing and cinnamon teal look almost identical,” Jamsa said. “There’s a little difference in the wing patch, but the only sure way to tell the difference is have them in your hand and measure the bill size. The cinnamon teal’s bill is a little larger than the bluewing’s.
“That’s the cool thing about banding. I’ve hunted waterfowl all my life, but it’s still a great learning experience to have these birds in hand, measure them and give them a good look.”
Jamsa said he passed the photo around to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists at the Kootenai Refuge and even sent the photo to Jeff Knetter, Idaho Fish and Game Department waterfowl manager in Boise.
None of them said they could be 100 percent certain in identifying the birds.
“With the numbers we have nesting up there, I will say a lot of the teal that hunters shoot during fall and think are blue-wings are probably cinnamons,” Jamsa said. “That could be the case here, but I don’t know.”
Photographers have a short window for getting fall photos of teal. “The greenwings will hang around, but the bluewings and cinnamons move out of here early,” Jamsa said.
“This was an early flight that came in September. They’re usually gone before the hunting seasons open (in October).”
The window of opportunity for focusing and snapping the shutter on a flight of teal also is brief.
“They were moving pretty good,” he said, referring to his DU photo. He chuckled – and needed to say no more to any waterfowl hunter who’s tried to swing shotgun barrel ahead of passing teal.
“When it comes to speed, teal are teal,” he said.