Wild moose chase: Taking a census from the air

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) recently issued a press release announcing that mid-winter aerial surveys of the Adirondack moose population had been completed.

But there was still some work to be done as DEC biologists wanted to get a better peek this winter at the number of moose calves, especially in relation to a handful of cow moose that have radio collars and are roaming the northern Adirondacks.

This writer, along with a few other members of the outdoor media, recently received an invite to participate in the aerial search for moose calves. DEC staff needed as many eyeballs as possible (that’s four people in a helicopter) looking for moose calves once their radio-collared mothers had been located.

For a while it seemed as though Mother Nature might not cooperate. Those clear, blue-sky days have been hard to come by, but we finally got one right after President’s Day. We met at the Adirondack Regional Airport near Saranac Lake and two-at-a-time went up with a helicopter pilot and a DEC biologist.

The first flight of morning netted five moose sightings, including a few calves. On the next flight, the observers weren’t so lucky as only the biologist and pilot, who are used to seeing moose from the air, spotted two that both quickly headed for cover.

Then it was my turn. After lifting off we headed for a third location, where a moose had been previously collared. The area was mostly private land, under conservation easement where logging is still practiced, thus providing solid moose habitat.

Things got encouraging quickly when we spotted moose tracks that the pilot thought were quite fresh. At the same time, the biologist was working on getting a signal with the radio telemetry equipment, guiding the pilot toward that area. We were instructed to look down for moose tracks and movement.

We ventured off a little bit and again picked up fresh tracks. Suddenly, someone excitedly hollered “there” and there was a cow moose trotting on a hardwood ridgeline just below us. We snapped photos while at the same time looking around for a second moose, hopefully a calf. But she was a loner, or even an antlerless bull perhaps, and was logged as a separate moose.

Then it was back to the spot of the radio signal, where we quickly realized just how good these animals can be at avoiding detection. With the biologists reporting a strong signal, the pilot maneuvered the helicopter all around the area, which had more conifers, in hopes of flushing out the moose.

Suddenly, I spotted movement to my right as the cow moose exited a patch of conifers. The fact she had a collar was confirmed and she quickly dashed into another conifer patch. We continued to catch glimpses of her, and despite our efforts, we could not confirm she had a calf nearby.

Our work was done, and we quickly headed back to the airport, where one more flight was scheduled for another area in a search for another collared moose.

I feel very fortunate to have been made welcome by the folks at DEC. The moose is an incredible animal and this was an incredible experience.

Categories: Dan Ladd

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