by Matt Young
On a windy spring morning in North Dakota, two ATVs carrying waterfowl researchers creep across a vast expanse of native prairie, dragging a 200-foot chain between them to flush ducks nesting in the lush green grass. I am accompanying Scott Stephens, a Ducks Unlimited research biologist and Ph.D. candidate at Montana State University, and research technicians Ed Penny and Andrew Puls on a nest-searching mission in the heart of the Missouri Coteau.
This rugged, glacier-carved region, dimpled with millions of prairie potholes surrounded by large tracts of unbroken grassland, contains some of the continent's most productive waterfowl breeding habitat. During wet years, some areas of the coteau support more than 100 breeding pairs of ducks per square mile.
It doesn't take long to find a nesting hen in such prime upland cover, and a female pintail flutters into the air just ahead of the chain, betraying the location of her nest. We hop from the four-wheelers and ease through the dew-soaked vegetation to the area where the hen flushed. Parting the high grass with his hands, Stephens discovers the small bowl-shaped nest holding a clutch of seven off-white eggs. He lifts one of the eggs and inspects it through a black plastic tube, noting the silhouette of the developing duckling, which is faintly visible through the opaque shell. This procedure, known as candling, reveals how long the hen has been incubating the eggs, and, consequently, when they will hatch.
"Looks like this one has about five days to go," Stephens says. "We've been finding lots of pintail nests on our study sites this spring. There appears to have been an especially large influx of pintails, perhaps from the west, that have pioneered into this area in response to excellent wetland conditions." Stephens carefully places the egg back in the nest and covers it with down to keep the eggs warm until the hen returns.