By Katie Long, DU research technician
Our crew of 15 started our two-week brood survey July 1 and just finished. This period differs from the pair survey in that we survey two different times during the day. The first is before sunrise until noon, and then we complete our disturbance evaluation. Needing to wait until 4 p.m. to start the second survey of the day, we find creative places to take naps and eat lunch. Tired technicians with wet and worn out feet are capable of taking naps just about anywhere.
Learning brood identification and age class was challenging. We spent many hours in the field before the official survey began in order to gain proper identification skills and to learn behaviors of hens and their broods. While being in the field and experiencing these daily activities as only our crew has, there are associated physical and mental demands. Long days averaging over 11 hours with 4 to 6 hours of sleep, and miles walked per week anywhere from 30 to 50 or more.
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and had never been involved in the outdoor world. Growing up, I was always intrigued by animals and what they were all about. I decided in high school that I would pursue some career in the animal or wildlife field. In college, I soon realized I wanted to be hands-on, out in the field working directly with wildlife. A college class on the importance, classifications, ecosystem dynamics and general aesthetics of wetlands sparked my desire to learn more and to get hands-on experience. Another course, Waterfowl Ecology and Management, introduced me to ducks, which sealed the deal for my love and work for wetland conservation.
After graduating with a degree in wildlife management, I knew how much competition there was for tech positions anywhere, let alone a position with DU, so I ended up working various jobs around the country. One day, however, I saw an opening for a waterfowl research technician in North Dakota, where I could work in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR). Also known as the "duck factory," the PPR is the ultimate breeding and nesting habitat for ducks. I had to apply, and to my surprise, I was offered the job.
Being out in the field and seeing everything first-hand can't be beat. I have learned how to approach basins without flushing ducks from their nests, as well as how to identify molting females as they fly from the grass. I am also experiencing the Bakken oil fields for the first time. I have seen oil wells and pump jacks before, just never so many. When I surveyed a basin sharing ground with a well pad, I was surprised to find a high count of ducks with normal behavior.
While working on this project, I have also learned how the land has changed in the last 50 or so years. Listening to stories and looking at maps from older wetland inventories show the relationship between waterfowl populations and their habitat. Populations are currently high, but information from this study will help us better understand how the changing world affects the "duck factory" and its associated habitats.
My favorite sight so far was in the first week of June. Another technician, Nick Bakner and I came across a wetland with a large number of ducks, and in the distance I spotted my favorite, a canvasback. Not only was it a hen, but a hen with her brood. Nick and I spent 20 minutes observing and taking pictures. It is such a wonderful part of the job and something few have seen. I am so lucky and grateful to be living out my dream.
On the last weekend in June, I went out nest searching with a master's student who locates, marks and monitors nests on various plots. We came upon the next nest on our list, and the gadwall hen did not flush as we approached. We thought it was a little strange, but at this late stage in incubation, she had put all of her resources, time and energy into this nest and was very reluctant to leave it. As we approached even closer, she began to hiss and expand her wings and puff out her body. She finally flushed off the nest and flew to the nearest wetland. Witnessing this behavior helped me understand why the resources for all wildlife are so important. Even though most bird species will re-nest, the first nest and eggs produced are going to be the strongest and will generally contain the highest count of eggs.
For the two-week survey, it was astonishing to see the shift in dominating species in each basin, transitioning from mallards, pintail, shoveler and blue-winged teal to gadwall, widgeon, green-winged teal, with the blue-winged teal still in high numbers. The divers and others are starting to appear, such as redheads, canvasbacks and scaup, along with pairs of ruddy ducks in mass amounts. For the first time last week, a lesser scaup hen and drake were spotted with three ducklings. From basin to basin, it is both captivating and intriguing to see the behaviors of the ducklings and surrounding ducks, whether it is the hen of the ducklings or not. The amalgamation of the ducklings, the age classes, the species and behaviors that occur all at one time make it challenging to make a count, age class and identification immediately upon viewing the basin. Depending on many factors such as the size of the basin, how many broods there are or whether or not there is a hen in the vicinity, makes us have our eyes glued and duck hats on to be ready to identify and record to the best of our ability the vital information this project is about.