“Leveling some of these wetlands has really helped,” Elmer says, pointing out 25-acre Butterball Pond, one of three sites on the property that DU helped in engineering. “These projects involved moving significant amounts of earth, but the wetlands produce a mix of natural foods like sago pondweed, wild millet, and smartweed. When the ducks are down, they like it here.”
DU has also been involved with multiple habitat enhancement projects at the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge. These efforts include restoring native wetland and riparian habitats and improving water-management capabilities. During wet years, Stillwater hosts as many as 350,000 ducks, including half the Pacific Flyway canvasback population, and 13,000 tundra swans.
“Stillwater is the most significant wetland complex in the state,” Elmer says. “We’ll see what’s going on over there tomorrow.”
The next day we meet up with Chris Nicolai, a doctoral candidate and waterfowl researcher who regularly stalks Stillwater and any other haunt where he can pack in his layout boat and pair of yellow Labs, Berni and Albi—named after, of all things, brant. Nicolai shares a secret hole that requires breaking a sweat to reach.
“It’s been hit or miss—mostly miss—this season,” Nicolai says at midafternoon with two mallards and a wigeon thus far in the bag. “We haven’t had the water or the birds we had two years ago. But near the end of shooting time, I can guarantee that you’ll see swans pouring in here.”
Nicolai’s clock was wrong. The swans show up just after dark. Ducks too. We watch from the access road as birds drop into the shallow marsh we just left. Not a bad way to end the day.