Nearly Done in Southern Saskatchewan

Written by Phil Thorpe
Monday, May 23, 2011

Photo of Phil Thorpe.We’ve covered a lot of ground since our last entry. We've completed the southwest short grass prairie, the large mixed grass prairie, and the northwest aspen parkland survey strata. We’ve had a few weather days along the way, but are moving along with the survey. We currently have 2 flying days left, plus a down day to make sure the ground crew is able to finish what we’ve flown. After 3 ½ weeks on the road, Pat and I are hoping for a Memorial Day weekend at home with our families.

Like much of North America’s grasslands, there are only remnants left of the native short grass prairie in southern Saskatchewan. Many pintails and other short grass bird species will nest in last year’s crop stubble and fall planted crops in areas where the native short grass prairie has been replaced by row crops. Pintails are early nesting species. They arrive in Saskatchewan in April, and if conditions are right, they settle in and get down to the business of nesting. They prefer ephemeral or temporary wetlands (many of these are now called sheetwater ponds located in crop stubble fields). When nesting in crop stubble, hens form nest bowls in the row depression or in a clump of crop stubble and start laying eggs. Their egg laying and hatching is timed to take advantage of invertebrate hatches on these shallow wetlands. However, in the agricultural environment, their timing is not so good. Just as they are starting to incubate their eggs, the owners of the fields come along and plant their crops. Usually the hen escapes injury, but the nest and eggs are not so lucky. The hen may renest again, but pintails are not big renesters, so after a couple tries they give up for the year. Lucky ones will nest in some of the areas of grassland that has been preserved or in fall planted crops. Winter wheat and rye provide large expanses for nesting pintails and are not harvested until after the young are hatched. The large fields make it difficult for predators to find the nests. Pintails are in southern Saskatchewan in big numbers this year, and hopefully they'll get some young recruited into the fall population.

The Missouri Coteau, a glacial moraine that runs through the center of the survey area, contains some of the last tracts of native prairie; it also has a high density of prairie potholes (small wetlands). It is now heavily grazed, but because of its topography not heavily cultivated. It provides critical nesting habitat for waterfowl and other prairie nesting birds. The potholes of the Coteau are full of water and should provide excellent brood-rearing habitat for waterfowl this year.

Moving north, we entered the drier northwest grasslands of Saskatchewan. “Drier” is a relative term, as it is still wet. Some wetland basins that have been dry and farmed for 10+ years are full with water. I haven't seen some wet since 1997 or '98. My notes for Whitebear Lake mention winter wheat growing across the basin. This isn't just a little pothole basin either, it's 1/2 mile wide and about 5 miles long. The wetland conditions continue to be good to excellent in the northern grasslands.

You see some funny things flying thousands of miles of low-level transects. The other day, we passed by a tree-nesting goose. That’s kind of unusual in itself, but this is the third year in a row that we’ve seen her. Pretty good nest site fidelity. She is up about 10 feet high in an old hawk nest and nice and safe from predators!

Water levels were not as high here as compared to the rest of the survey area.

Water levels were not as high here as compared to the rest of the survey area. Photo by Phil Thorpe, USFWS

Excellent habitat conditions for breeding ducks.  Snowberry and lots of grassland cover for nesting and wetlands for brood rearing.

Excellent habitat conditions for breeding ducks. Snowberry and lots of grassland cover for nesting and wetlands for brood rearing. Photo by Phil Thorpe, USFWS

Wetland basin flooded outside the normal willow ring.

Wetland basin flooded outside the normal willow ring. Photo by Phil Thorpe, USFWS

Two years ago this basin was farmed.

Two years ago this basin was farmed. Photo by Phil Thorpe, USFWS

A reflection of the excess water on the landscape this year.

A reflection of the excess water on the landscape this year. Photo by Phil Thorpe, USFWS

Normally this area is irrigated using ditches.  This year they could grow rice.

Normally this area is irrigated using ditches. This year they could grow rice. Photo by Phil Thorpe, USFWS

The water source for most of these ponds was still present this year.

The water source for most of these ponds was still present this year. Photo by Phil Thorpe, USFWS