Ducks Unlimited partners with UND for nest cam project

Students study blue-winged teal nesting habits

WING, N.D. – Ducks Unlimited (DU) has partnered with University of North Dakota (UND) to provide biology students experience and school credit through a summer research project at the Coteau Ranch, a 3,000-acre property owned and restored by Ducks Unlimited. The interns monitor blue-winged teal nests via surveillance cameras to study nesting behavior.

DU biologists and Dr. Susan Ellis-Felege instruct and support the student interns. The interns find between three and 15 nests a day by dragging a chain across grassland between two four-wheelers to flush hens from their nests. After a hen gives away her nest's location, the students install cameras, collect and monitor footage and write down every event, from the return of a hen to the arrival of a predator.

DU Manager of Conservation Planning Kaylan Carrlson says one of DU's goals with the project is to prepare students for future careers. "It is tough to get any natural resources job," she said. "We thought it would be great to give students an opportunity to come out to the ranch and get some experience."

UND students John Palarski, sophomore, and Nickolas Conrad, a junior, change the cameras' SD cards every three or four days, store the videos on hard drives and upload them to the project website server.  Viewing the footage is tedious.

"Blue-winged teal, like other grassland species, can be hard to monitor with cameras because of the grass blowing in the wind and obstructing the view," Dr. Ellis-Felege said. "Plus, the hens blend into the background."

By the end of summer, the students will have recorded tens of thousands of hours. It would take years to analyze, if not for the help of volunteers.

The nest cameras are part of the UND Citizen Science Grid project called Wildlife@Home, created by Dr. Ellis-Felege and Dr. Travis Desell. Dr. Desell says Citizen Science Grid uses public participation to accommodate the insurmountable data often faced by researchers.

Volunteers sign up for a free account online and analyze footage as it is uploaded. Their observations aid the research team and are compared to the results of Dr. Desell's algorithms, to see if video analysis may one day be computer-automated.

The involvement of volunteers, Carrlson says, is another reason DU was interested in the project. One of the goals of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan is to increase public participation in conservation. Wildlife@Home allows DU to facilitate that.

Palarski and Conrad will present their findings this fall at a wildlife conference in Winnipeg. "Working with Ducks Unlimited has been very rewarding," Palarski said. "Tanner (Gue, DU conservation specialist,) and Kaylan have been great mentors to us and have already taught us so much."