Life as a nest-cam intern

John Palarski and Nick Conrad's mornings began this summer at 7:30 a.m. with the loading of their ATVs, just outside their rented lodge in Goodrich, N.D. They packed video cameras, batteries, GPS devices, flags and stakes, a drag chain, egg candler and paper bag lunches. They strapped everything down, flicked yesterday's ticks from their helmets and with the morning still cool, set off for the Ducks Unlimited (DU) Coteau Ranch.

Palarski, a sophomore from Wausau, Wisconsin, and Conrad, a junior from Savage, Minnesota, are University of North Dakota (UND) fisheries and wildlife biology majors. The two recently completed an internship through a collaborative research project between DU and UND. They set up nest cameras at the Coteau Ranch, near Wing, to monitor nesting behaviors of female blue-winged teal.

"Being outdoors all day with wildlife, it's any outdoorsman's dream," Palarski said.

The Coteau Ranch is 3,000 acres of prairie grassland dotted with wetlands. A neighboring rancher's cattle graze the land, and DU and others use it for research and education. Located in the Prairie Pothole Region, it provides some of the best waterfowl-nesting habitat in the world.

In order to find nests, Palarski and Conrad had to connect a 100-foot-long chain between the two four-wheelers and drag it across the grass, a process called "nest dragging." When the chain flushed a hen into the air, they would find its nest, mark the location with a stake, record the GPS coordinates and set up a nest camera.

"My favorite moment was the first day going dragging with Tanner (Gue, DU research scientist) and seeing the ducks jump out of the grass," Conrad said.

Driving over the many rocks and uneven ground of the prairie made nest dragging a challenge. "Getting bounced around by all those rocks was the worst," Palarski said. But by the final month of the study, he and Conrad had learned how to navigate the terrain. Ryann Cressey, a DU wetlands biologist, joined them one day while they dragged and was impressed by their ability to avoid rocks. Cressey said, "It was like they were floating."

The two spent afternoons and evenings studying the nest cam footage, which was tedious with as many as 11 cameras taping around the clock. "I think we can both agree that watching video was the worst," Conrad said. Footage analysis continued even into the weekends.

They never got a break from picking ticks from their legs, necks and beards either. They could not wear bug spray in the field because the strong scent might have attracted waterfowl predators.

Their only chance to relax was when they fished on the weekends for extra food.

With their work in the field finished, the two now look forward to going home. However, there is still footage to analyze. The video is available online at Wildlife@Home and www.ducks.org/NestCam2015. Palarski and Conrad will present their findings this fall at wildlife conferences in Winnipeg and North Dakota.

The nest cam study will continue next summer. Both Palarski and Conrad have been invited to participate.