Eastern Dakotas Ground Crew Making Great Progress

Written by Terry Liddick
Monday, May 16, 2016

Terry LiddickThe Eastern Dakotas crew assembled in Mitchell, SD, this year on May 2nd. Once again, I have Dave Fronczak as my observer, the sixth consecutive year we have been the aerial crew. The ground crew this year is being led by Pam Garrettson, a veteran of many years of ground crew leadership in both the Eastern Dakotas and Western Dakotas and Montana. She has 2 returning members from last year, Stephen LeJeune and Helina Alvarez, Stephen’s 3rd year and Helina’s second. They also have Clay Edmonson. It is his first year on the BPOP ground crew, but he has done four square mile plots in the past. So we have a very veteran ground crew as well this year.

Dave and I flew some aerial reconnaissance on the afternoon of May 2nd and everything looked good enough to start on the 3rd. Habitat looked as good in the Mitchell area as we have seen in quite a few years and the duck pairings were on target as well. We generally spend a day or two training and working with the ground crew, but with their experience and the early progression of the spring this year, we jumped right in the next day once we were assured all the equipment was working properly. Things began smoothly on the morning of the 3rd, but later in the morning we experienced a few computer issues that resulted in an extra landing to get it straightened out. After correcting that issue, we finished for the day and the 2016 BPOP was off and running. We saw a lot of water, more than we have seen here in a few years, but the ducks weren’t exactly calling it home yet. Much of the water was a result of 4-5” of rain that fell in the prior week. Southeast South Dakota also experienced a pretty good amount of snow fall this past winter as well.

Day two brought more of the same as far as habitat conditions and computer issues. It seems the computer that Dave uses to record observations has an issue interpreting and recording the GPS location of each observation. We worked on that awhile again and pressed on with the survey. Habitat in the southern part of South Dakota continued to look as good as we saw the day before and as good as we have seen it in a few years. All species of expected waterfowl were present in fair numbers and seemed to be pretty well settled out onto breeding territories. Evidence of the early spring continued to be visible with much of the vegetation being pretty green already and most of the trees having already begun to leaf out. That is something we generally do not see this early in the survey. It has been a very mild spring and it shows.

Day three began with another computer issue so we ultimately disabled the GPS feed into that computer and began to just record observations minus the GPS locations. This isn’t a big deal while we are recording the data, but it does require Dave to go through a few more steps and a little extra effort when he is transcribing the data. As everyone knows, technology is great only when it works! We did see things begin to dry out a bit as we worked our way north. After Day 3, we moved our operation to Aberdeen, SD. The flight to Aberdeen revealed even dryer conditions.

After flying out of Aberdeen for three days, habitat in South Dakota began to deteriorate and dry became the word of the day, each day. This included the first two lines that we flew into North Dakota. North of Huron, SD, and just into North Dakota, the habitat can only be described as fair at best. Most of the seasonal wetlands on the drift plain were dry and we even encountered many seasonals on the Coteau that were dry as well. That is something I haven’t really witnessed yet in the years that I have been flying the Eastern Dakotas crew area. The Coteau regions still have a good number of ducks, but production in South Dakota will probably only be average at best this year.

Upon completing day six of flying in South Dakota, we moved on to Jamestown, ND. The flight from Aberdeen to Jamestown revealed more of the same conditions, remaining fairly dry. Much of the winter precipitation this year did not reach North Dakota and it shows. The El Nino-influenced storm track this past winter caused much of the precipitation to fall in the central plains down through Texas. South Dakota, particularly in the southeastern portion of the state, benefited somewhat from that track, but North Dakota, which had been looking pretty good the past couple years, appears to be fairly dry so far. When mentioning this to a colleague who lives in North Dakota, he replied by stating “you should have seen how dry it was a couple weeks ago before the most recent rain in late April”!

We were able to fly on May 9th, our seventh consecutive day, the first day after arriving in Jamestown, and the dry conditions continued to be prominent. However, we then ran out of good weather and mostly strong winds greeted us each day for the next three days, as well as a few showers and some low ceilings and fog. This did provide an opportunity to catch up on some other work that piles up while we are flying, as well as to continue to try to resolve the GPS issue with the observer computer. That continues to nag at us and continues to provide a little bit more work for Dave every day as he transcribes his data. So now with all the data we’ve collected so far submitted to the fine folks at Patuxent, and some glitches worked out with the equipment, we are prepared to turn the home stretch. We have six more days of flying ahead of us to complete North Dakota. As of now, the only good habitat was in South Dakota, south of Huron, and particularly, south of Mitchell. From that point on, the Coteau regions are more or less holding their own, albeit as dry as we have seen them in the past six years, and the remaining portion of the survey area is particularly dry this year. Stay tuned for the next update and the rest of the story from North Dakota.

2016 Eastern Dakotas aerial crew upon completion of the survey at Devil's Lake, North Dakota. From left to righ: Dave Fronczak and Terry Liddick. Photo Credit: Terry Liddick, USFWS.

2016 Eastern Dakotas aerial crew upon completion of the survey at Devil's Lake, North Dakota. From left to righ: Dave Fronczak and Terry Liddick. Photo Credit: Terry Liddick, USFWS.

Wetlands near Mitchell, South Dakota. Photo Credit: Terry Liddick, USFWS.

Wetlands near Mitchell, South Dakota. Photo Credit: Terry Liddick, USFWS.

Sunrise in eastern South Dakota reflecting off wetlands. Photo Credit: Terry Liddick, USFWS.

Sunrise in eastern South Dakota reflecting off wetlands. Photo Credit: Terry Liddick, USFWS.

South of Mitchell, South Dakota looked really good this year, the sole bright spot in the survey area. Photo Credit: Terry Liddick, USFWS.

South of Mitchell, South Dakota looked really good this year, the sole bright spot in the survey area. Photo Credit: Terry Liddick, USFWS.

Smokey sunrise in South Dakota, smoke from the Alberta fires. Photo Credit: Terry Liddick, USFWS.

Smokey sunrise in South Dakota, smoke from the Alberta fires. Photo Credit: Terry Liddick, USFWS.

Many dry seasonal wetlands on the coteau this year. Photo Credit: Terry Liddick, USFWS.

Many dry seasonal wetlands on the coteau this year. Photo Credit: Terry Liddick, USFWS.

Never a good sign when we see dry wetlands on the coteau. Photo Credit: Terry Liddick, USFWS.

Never a good sign when we see dry wetlands on the coteau. Photo Credit: Terry Liddick, USFWS.