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Written by Pam Garrettson
Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Pam Garrettson.“Crunchiness.” That’s what Brent West said to me when I asked him what I should write about. We’re out here together again doing the air-ground corrections in the Western Dakotas-Eastern Montana crew area, and we just finished up South Dakota. For a puzzled second I thought he was contemplating trading in his hunting boots for some Birkenstocks, but he wasn’t talking about the ground crew, he was talking about the ground. Last year it was so dry, the ground literally crunched underneath our feet. This year the soil is soft, even spongy in spots, wetland basins are full, and there’s water from recent rains pooled in the fields.

More water means more ducks of every species, but especially northern pintails and blue-winged teal. Mallard females tend to return to where they were hatched, but pintails and blue-winged teal tend to go where the water is. Already we have counted more bluewings than we did during the entire survey last year. Survey estimates are very important for teal management because they migrate early and winter mostly south of the U.S. border. Thus, band returns and harvest estimates are less useful because relatively few are harvested in the U.S., and because we know very little about their harvest elsewhere.

Small and inconspicuous, blue-winged teal are difficult to see from the air, and their visual correction factors (VCFs, the ratio of ground to air counts) tend to be higher than those for other species. They present a challenge for us too, as they often lurk in emergent vegetation and flush reluctantly. Females display even more bravado while nesting, sitting tight when predators approach, and rarely abandoning nests, even when repeatedly disturbed. They are relatively short-lived, with a short breeding season, so they must make each nest count. Years ago, when I studied nesting blue-winged teal, I approached a nest that was near hatch and looked down to find the tiny hen nibbling furiously at my boot.

Brent West scans a large wetland for ducks in northwestern South Dakota.

Brent West scans a large wetland for ducks in northwestern South Dakota. Photo by Brent West, US FWS