Perspective from the Field: Waterfowl Research in the Duck Factory

Research crew leader shares passion, motivation for waterfowl conservation

By Garrett Cacciola, crew leader

Thick early morning fog covers the gravel road as we head towards our study plot for the day in Northwest North Dakota. This morning resembles the many mornings I have shared with friends prior to a day of duck hunting, but it is not exactly the same. I am here primarily to bolster my resume as a crew leader on a waterfowl research project for Ducks Unlimited, Inc. But it is so much more than that. I am an important part of a dedicated team of wetland conservationists.

As soon as I stepped into the DU office in Bismarck, North Dakota, I was flooded with the overwhelming sense that each employee is dedicated to wetland and waterfowl conservation, both professionally and personally. Working with, and getting to know these biologists, public policy advocates, and fundraising staff in the office was an important first step for me. It reinforced background knowledge and gave me the mindset necessary to start contacting farmers and ranchers to request permission to count ducks on their property.

However, the real work has just begun. I am now joined by a team of wildlife technicians from all over the country. We are responsible for the on-the-ground work for a waterfowl survey that has been carefully planned out. It will be a four month (May-August) grind to gather enough data to begin to paint a picture of how ducks are responding to the increased oil and gas production in North Dakota's portion of the Bakken. Work really begins the night before as we lay out a game plan for the following day. The goal is theoretically simple; maximize the number of wetland basins we visit in a day without over working ourselves so that we can maintain pace for the entire survey period. The next morning, armed with maps, binoculars, and data sheets we set out on our route. We have all been trained to conduct the survey correctly and we are driven to accomplish such each day. Long days in the field are stricken with obstacles; from everyday issues like crossing cattle fences and navigating to the correct pothole to more unique situations like giving yourself enough distance to avoid unintentionally threatening a mother moose and her new calf. The days roll together and the miles add up, but when you stop to survey a wetland basin that has eight or more species of waterfowl in brilliant plumage displaying to each other, it all slows down. This is the duck factory! Full of natural beauty punctuated by continually impressive numbers of ducks, the PPR is an area of paramount importance for the continental waterfowl population. It never takes long to find the next glimpse of motivation that brought me out here and pushes me to keep up the good work.

Ducks Unlimited, Inc. has assembled a crew of serious "duck heads" and at the end of the day when the other technicians and I sit down to relax our conversations blend indistinguishably between work and play. The passion that we have for waterfowl and wetland conservation is a bond we share with many others not lucky enough to turn it into a career. It goes without saying that we would not be able to do this important research without funding secured from DU members nationwide. The opportunity to work for Ducks Unlimited in the spectacular Prairie Pothole Region is an experience I will carry with me for the rest of my life. At the same time it is not a responsibility that I take lightly. All of DU's members should understand that their contributions continually fund much needed and carefully executed research by an extremely dedicated team.