Let the Circle be Unbroken - Back to the Eastern Dakotas Survey

Written by Terry Liddick
Friday, April 29, 2011

Terry Liddick

This year's survey planning began about three years ago. In February 2008, I began my career as a Flyway Biologist trainee. My first assignment, the day I started, was to serve as the observer for the initial sea duck survey along the Atlantic coast. That was my initial exposure to low level survey flying. It was fairly benign considering we were flying over open ocean and there were not a lot of obstacles out there! It got a little more exciting a few months later when I was assigned as John Solberg's aerial observer for the 2008 Breeding Population and Habitat Survey (BPOP) in the eastern Dakotas.

John had been flying the eastern Dakota's BPOP for more than 20 years. He had a commanding knowledge of the crew area. With the exception of the ever increasing number of cell towers and wind turbines, John could pretty much tell me where every obstacle, pond, power line, house, car, barn, cow, pheasant, sharp-tailed grouse and darn near every duck was going to be! He was able to provide me with an excellent mentoring season on how to look out for those obstacles and all the while count ducks. For this mentoring, training and exposure I will be forever grateful.

Fast forward a few years to today: John has retired and I - having flown the southern Manitoba and western Dakotas/eastern Montana survey areas in the meantime - find myself coming full circle back to the eastern Dakotas for the 2011 BPOP. It will be a little different flying it as the pilot instead of the observer, because now I will have to watch out for all the obstacles that John knew so well. I am excited to inherit this important waterfowl breeding crew area and hope to become as intimately familiar with it as John was as I conduct the survey over the next many years!

Planning has been happening over the past several months and as usual, when you think you have everything ready to go, the departure day arrives and panic sets in as you wonder if you really do have all the details covered. This year was much like last year in that I left my plane in Kearney, Nebraska at the completion of the mid-continent sandhill crane survey. It was more economical and efficient to leave it there rather than fly it to Phoenix, AZ, only to fly it all the way back to South Dakota a few short weeks later. Before I left Nebraska on March 25th, I carefully inventoried the equipment needed for the BPOP survey that I could leave in the plane. I spent the next two weeks traveling for some training and our annual branch planning meeting.

At our annual meeting, Kathy Fleming and Emily Silverman provided us with all of the computer files necessary to record and transcribe our data and accurately fly the transects. Upon returning to my duty station in Phoenix on April 9th, I was ready to begin the final preparations. I began setting up computers, acquiring all charts and maps and making tentative hotel reservations for myself and my observer.

This year my observer is Dave Fronczak. Dave is the Mississippi Flyway Representative's assistant and has been the aerial observer on numerous surveys - longer than I have! I am grateful to have Dave and his experience along. Keeping an eye on the weather, I decided to leave Phoenix for Kearney on April 27th. This gave me the weather window necessary to fly my plane form Kearney to Pierre, South Dakota, and meet up with the western Dakota's crew for some training time.

I will spend the next few days here in Pierre working with the pilot and observer for the western Dakota's/eastern Montana crew area, and getting them ready for their survey. The pilot will be Shawn Bayless, borrowed from Region 6. This will be Shawn's first year flying the BPOP, but he has vast experience flying other surveys. His observer will be Jon Klimstra, the Atlantic Flyway Representative's assistant. Jon has been on the western Dakota's ground crew for the past several years, but this will be his first year as the right seat aerial observer. I will assist them in setting up their computers and familiarizing them with the standard operating procedures and programs we use to record and transcribe our data.

Tuesday, May 3rd, I will depart Pierre for Mitchell, South Dakota, where my survey will begin. All the hotel reservations are made and the eastern Dakota's ground crew (led again this year by Pam Garrettson), and my observer Dave Fronczak should all arrive in Mitchell sometime during the day. At this time, we plan on beginning the survey on May 5th or 6th. We'll fly a day of reconnaissance on the 4th to get a feel for habitat conditions and waterfowl breeding chronology and decide after that. Spring seems a little late in arriving and there is plenty of water after a long winter and a wet April. We are expecting to see excellent conditions and a large number of waterfowl following two consecutive years of the same!