Twenty Years and Counting

Written by Phil Thorpe
Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Photo of Phil Thorpe.Wow, this will be my 20th waterfowl breeding population survey! Where did that time go? I can say every single year has been different: dry years, wet years, and stressful years. All different though. I’ve had nine different observers, which isn’t too bad as far as turnover goes in crew areas. Thom Lewis flew with me for five years, which is the most so far. Stephen Chandler is on his fourth year now, and I think he has the potential to break Thom’s record. That will be OK by me; having the same observer every year makes the survey easy. When you have a reliable observer you don’t have to worry about their data collection, or about them missing things, and they become an important part of the flight crew. They manage the computers, help with the aircraft chores and overall reduce the mental and physical workload of the pilot biologist quite a bit.

This year is shaping up to be much drier than we’ve experienced in many years. In particular, the grasslands portion of the province has dried out. After four survey days our raw duck and pond count is about 60% below similar coverage from last year. There is more water in the northern grasslands and Parklands, so I’m guessing things should pick up in the next few days. Dry conditions can be boring for surveying, but the wet-dry cycle is necessary for the life of these prairie wetlands. They need to dry out to continue to be productive habitats for waterfowl and many other species of birds and animals. If they never dried out, they would eventually fill in with detritus and turn into more prairie. The biggest issue for these seasonal wetlands in dry years is the risk of getting tilled under and the resulting destruction of the water-holding bottom of the basin. This can eventually lead to the wetland not functioning as a wetland anymore, a loss for wildlife and eventually a problem for humans when done on a large scale. Flooding of rivers and lakes are just a few results of what can happen with widespread wetland drainage.

The rough terrain of tThe Missouri Coteau helps protect these wetlands from tillage in dry years. Photo Credit: Phil Thorpe, USFWS.

The rough terrain of tThe Missouri Coteau helps protect these wetlands from tillage in dry years. Photo Credit: Phil Thorpe, USFWS.

Dry wetlands in southern Saskatchewan. Photo Credit: Phil Thorpe, USFWS.

Dry wetlands in southern Saskatchewan. Photo Credit: Phil Thorpe, USFWS.