Saskatchewan Ground Crew Survey Summary

Written by Jean-Michel DeVink
Thursday, May 24, 2012

Photo of Jean-Michel DeVink.Well, another May breeding waterfowl population survey in southern SK has come and gone. This year was very different than last year for several reasons. First, spring conditions in SK started out very advanced through late winter and into early spring, and that meant the earliest scheduled start date for surveys in our crew area. Arrival dates of most waterfowl were weeks ahead of normal and paired ducks and geese were settling on nesting ponds soon after the official start of spring. Things always have a way of changing in a hurry on the prairies, though, and by mid-April we saw cooler weather bring most things, like bud burst on trees and insect emergence, back on track. The second difference was that CWS implemented changes to the level of effort for the ground comparison segments of the survey in the Prairies. In southern SK, our reduced effort meant that we were running our surveys with smaller crews. Instead of the previous 3 crews of 3, we had crews of 2, 2 and 3. While this occasionally resulted in eliminating a transect, it often resulted in smaller crews running transects that were previously done by a crew of 3. It also meant that there were fewer people for data entry once back at the hotel after transects, so everyone rolled up their sleeves and focused on getting it done. The third reason things were quite different from last year: water. I should say, rather, the lack thereof. By the end of the winter, many in the prairies were throwing around the dreaded “D” word. Precipitation maps were certainly indicating drought conditions over the last six months. The end of winter and early spring did bring some much needed water, though. During surveys many of our transects in the Southeast and Northeast had decent water, thanks to some late winter/early spring precipitation, but much of the western portion was still relatively dry. Some of the western transects had very disappointing pond counts with as high as 80% of pond basins being dry.

A pond south of Regina that was partially recharged by early spring precipitation.

A pond south of Regina that was partially recharged by early spring precipitation. Photo by Jean-Michel DeVink, CWS

One recurring observation across much of the province was the tilling and seeding of small shallow wetlands. While it was a very wet year last spring during surveys, SK received very little precipitation through the summer and fall. By the end of harvest, which was quite early, most shallow wetlands were drawn down or dry and many farmers took the opportunity to return those shallow depressions into production.

A typical dry shallow wetland near Kindersley that had been tilled and prepped for seeding.

A typical dry shallow wetland near Kindersley that had been tilled and prepped for seeding. Photo by Jean-Michel DeVink, CWS

The area around Saskatoon remained quite wet and some of the local areas that are typically excellent for nesting waterfowl did also hold water. One observation about many of the wetlands was the presence of dead vegetation. Several of the forested wetlands now have dead trees and shrubs due to flooding.

Deeper pothole wetlands along the Hanley transect continued to hold water and many were ringed with dead trees and shrubs from sustained high water levels.

Deeper pothole wetlands along the Hanley transect continued to hold water and many were ringed with dead trees and shrubs from sustained high water levels. Photo by Jean-Michel DeVink, CWS

The final way in which the SK survey this year was quite different from last year was the complete lack of “weather days” once we got started. While the survey was initially set to start on April 29th, which would have our ground crew starting on the 30th, rain and wind delayed the start of the survey until May 5th, which was more typical of an average year. However, once we got started it was non-stop. There was the occasional day that approached our SOP cut-off for wind and precipitation, but never exceeded them. We were confident with in our ability to properly count birds every day and fortunately, it always seemed that if the weather was a little “ducky” where the ground crew was working, our pilot (Phil Thorpe) was able to find slightly better weather to complete our next day’s ground transects. Had we stuck to our original schedule it might have resulted in some weather delays, but a bit of minor shuffling of the schedule kept Phil flying ahead. That made for a long haul of 15 straight days, but it was a fortunate string of luck that we got it all done just before a weather system moved into SK and would have held us up for several days.

Our overall impression from the ground is that things are not as rosy as they were last year in terms of habitat conditions. Water levels in wetlands across the province have receded in general, though many larger wetlands remain full and in good condition. The pleasant surprise is that overall duck numbers appear as good or better across southern SK. Although our ground segments represent only a fraction of the total land area of the province, it will be interesting to see if our slight increase in observed ducks is observed across the rest of the prairies and beyond that into the total breeding duck population estimate. If nesting and brood rearing conditions are favourable over the next few months, we could see another stellar fall flight!