Ahead of Schedule

Written by Shawn Bayless
Thursday, May 10, 2012

Shawn BaylessWe are about a week ahead of last year's survey, due in large part to the uncommonly nice weather, but also to the early start of the survey. The ground crews have finished their air-ground segments (used to obtain visual correction factors) and have headed home. Only Jon and I remain and, if the nice weather persists, we should finish by the end of this week. Habitat conditions are somewhat variable, with fair-to-good values in ND, SD and NE Montana, and poor-to-fair values in north- and south-central Montana.

Temporary and seasonal basins remain dry or nearly so throughout most of our survey area, and the only pair habitat appears to be the larger type III+ wetlands, stockponds and streams. Breeding waterfowl of all species common to this area have been observed in decent numbers on existing water areas, particularly northern pintails, gadwalls, mallards and blue-winged teal. Lone drakes of the early nesters are very common now, as well as lone drake blue-winged teal (a later nesting species), suggesting they've done their job and the hens are either in the latter stages of laying or are incubating their eggs. We have not surveyed central Montana yet, but will forward our appraisal upon completion.

Upland nesting habitats appear to be in good shape; the prairie has certainly 'greened' up since we started at the end of April. Farmers remain busy completing their spring seeding and the crop-dusters have been busy spraying wild oats and tansy mustard.

While flying the international border the past couple days, Jon and I were perplexed by the number of coyotes we observed (which isn't necessarily a bad thing for nesting waterfowl, as coyotes tend to preclude high densities of nest- and hen-eating red fox). Between the ND line and north of Malta we observed 2 coyotes per segment along the international border (a segment is 18 miles long), whereas all other transects, including the nearest transect to the south, were nearly void of coyotes. One of our theories (or SWAGs) for the higher number of 'songdogs' along the border is the existence of a strip (30-60' wide) of undisturbed grass in the no-man's land along the border which might harbor higher densities of rodents and/or nesting birds than adjacent land (which is typically farmed). Might be an interesting research project some day...

Unfarmed grass strip along the US/Canada border.

Unfarmed grass strip along the US/Canada border. Photo by Jon Klimstra, US FWS

Most wetlands are dry in Montana.

Most wetlands are dry in Montana. Photo by Jon Klimstra, US FWS

The dry cycle isn’t good for waterfowl this year, but the long-term health of the prairie ecosystem depends on intermittent wet and dry cycles.

The dry cycle isn’t good for waterfowl this year, but the long-term health of the prairie ecosystem depends on intermittent wet and dry cycles. Photo by Jon Klimstra, US FWS