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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Breeding Grounds Survey: Who Moved My Calendar?

May 15, 2014 - Northern Saskatchewan and Northern Manitoba
By Walt Rhodes, USFWS pilot biologist, Northern Saskatchewan and Northern Manitoba

Calendars and clocks are artificial scorecards for humans. For the previous six years my old calendars have indicated that I have been in Canada on this date and yet today I am still at home in central Oregon. Maybe I have programmed the calendar feature in my new iPhone incorrectly.

Wildlife and their habitats operate on a schedule, too, but it doesn’t include benchmarks such as May 15th or 2 o’clock p.m. Rather, their annual cycle is guided by factors like the amount of daylight and temperature, which, in turn, affect ice cover or plant maturation, for example. It is true waterfowl return to the north to breed in the spring, but assuming everyone is in place by the same date annually is a fallacy. The critters will indicate the date on their calendar.

Since I survey in the northern reaches, one of my preparation boxes is keeping an eye on the departure of winter. Specifically, it entails monitoring temperatures, ice cover maps, weather cameras, and making phone calls to locals in my crew area to determine how quickly open water will appear. I also remain in touch with prairie crews to the south who are already surveying to hear what they are seeing. For example, if Phil Thorpe in southern Saskatchewan is bumping into tundra swans or a host of black-and-white ducks (i.e., buffleheads, scaup, mergansers) then that’s an indication winter is still holding its grip to the north, and my departure will be delayed despite what the calendar might show.

All indications are that spring appears to be arriving late in the bush this year. Locals have reported seeing some ducks and geese arrive already, yet lakes that are normally open when I arrive are still being driven upon with vehicles. Ice cover maps tell the same story. Things can change quickly with a few days of warm weather, however. Trees will leaf out and shallow wetlands will thaw in a hurry, and waterfowl will respond with equal speed, albeit slightly behind; but for now it appears that I get to mow the grass at home one more time and prepare to depart early next week after some forecasted inclement weather moves through. After that, every date just becomes a Monday once the survey gets going.

2010 Map showing snow- and ice-free northern Saskatchewan.

2014 map shows much of northern Manitoba and northern Saskatchewan remain snow covered.