The State of the North, Waterfowl- and Habitat-Wise

Written by Steve Olson
Monday, June 06, 2016

Steve OlsonCurrent conditions along the Arctic Ocean coast in the Northwest Territories are not favorable (snow/light rain mix and high winds) for flying low-level surveys today. So, I will catch our duck hunters and managers up on our journey and habitat conditions since traveling north of the Fort Mac fires.

Fred and I started around the same time we always do, May 16. This year being a consensus-verified early spring, we feel like we are in perfect synchronicity with northern breeding waterfowl. Google “Wekweti, NT”, as this is the latitude where we first (May 28, 2016) found ice on large lakes. We have encountered very few “migratory” groups of waterfowl, or those of which have yet to reach their destinations. Most of our counts are pairs and single drakes, and sometimes a few grouped drakes hanging out together on the same large wetland. This is an indication to us that their paired hens are giving it a go (attempting nesting) somewhere close-by.

Habitat conditions improved as we traveled north, and the breeding situation for waterfowl is indeed not as dire as our southern counterparts report. Fred and I found many northern boreal wetlands and lakes to be full of water, especially north of Ft. Smith to Hay River, NT. In fact, so much water existed here, that the once dry and century-old grassy buffers between open water and the spruce/alder are now underwater.

What does this mean for the birds trying to nest here? To us, this could be a blessing and a curse. Many species that have adapted to nesting among the trees and tussock can and will give a go of it, but those displaced by dry conditions in the southern (and more preferred) breeding areas may not find what they are used to (grasslands of the prairies). Waterfowl breeding success depends on many factors; adequate nesting habitat, nest success, juvenile survival (brood-rearing habitat), and weather. Our prediction, given observations of over 3,500 survey miles, is that any broods successfully hatched will have ample water and food to survive to fledge. But, those species which were displaced from the prairies may not adapt to the higher water conditions and disfavored nesting habitat.

The boreal and arctic may again be the savior for waterfowl. But, this makes me wonder even further. What mechanisms will drive future populations of waterfowl if the continent’s breadbasket (US and Canadian prairies) continues to wane in breeding habitat? I think of the mounds of breeding waterfowl literature written of studies conducted on the prairies, and specifically nest site fidelity (where females return to the same area (and sometimes same exact nest bowl) to which they were born). I wonder most about how the adaptability of certain species that are forced north due to dry prairies and southern boreal, allows them to become successful breeders in foreign habitats and become “used” to breeding in these habitats. What will be greater, the instinctual drive to breed where born or the instinctual drive to breed where the majority of its species historically breeds? This will take years to answer, if ever, but for now there remains a wealth of water and habitat in Northern Alberta and the entire Northwest Territories.

Lastly, it is important to note the Peace-Athabasca River delta is as dry as we’ve ever seen it. Dams constructed by humans have depleted the entire watershed, and Lake Athabasca and associated wetlands are feeling that pinch. We spent some time with our buddy, Jumbo Fraser, a village elder in Fort Chipewyan, as we looked out over the mud flat shoreline of Lake Athabasca. Jumbo told us it is as low as he’s ever seen in his 78 years of life. Many locals cannot reach their cabins on Mamawi Lake via transom motors, and this has had a noticeable impact on their spring hunting of waterfowl. This is a great issue for the locals and waterfowl alike. As one of the few waterfowl biologists to trap ducks in this extremely important inland delta, it pangs me to write these words.

SE of Hay River Line 1702

High water between Fort Smith and Hay River, Northwest Territories. Video taken by Steve Olson, USFWS.

Peace Athabasca River Delta (shorter)

The Peace-Athabasca River delta. An extremely important inland river delta, for animals and people alike. Video taken by Steve Olson, USFWS.

High water seen in most northern boreal wetland systems.  This is taken southeast of Hay River, Northwest Territories. Photo Credit: Steve Olson, USFWS.

High water seen in most northern boreal wetland systems. This is taken southeast of Hay River, Northwest Territories. Photo Credit: Steve Olson, USFWS.

The Peace-Athabasca River delta.  An extremely important inland river delta, for animals and people alike. Photo Credit: Steve Olson, USFWS.

The Peace-Athabasca River delta. An extremely important inland river delta, for animals and people alike. Photo Credit: Steve Olson, USFWS.