Even the Drier Areas Have Ducks

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Written by Pam Garrettson
Friday, May 16, 2014

Pam Garrettson.The trend of many more wetlands and ducks continued, even as we made our way into arid eastern Montana. On the Garrison, ND, air-ground segment (our only one east of the Missouri River) we even saw quite a few diving ducks, relatively rare in this survey area. Diving ducks such as redheads, canvasbacks and scaup are generally found only on larger, deeper wetlands. Their wings are small relative to their bodies, which allows them to dive deeply for the submerged aquatic vegetation and mollusks they favor, but it means they must paddle along the water to gain enough power to take off and fly.

Southeastern Montana is never a duck bonanza. The area is rugged and dry, and all the wetlands are artificial or are streams and rivers. Both types of artificial wetlands we see are designed to provide water for livestock. Where the water table is high, a farmer may simply dig a hole, which fills with ground water and runoff, and this is called a dugout. The other type is called a stock dam, which consists of a dirt wall, or berm, built in the middle of a stream, so that even when the stream dries up, the area behind the dam retains water longer.

Southeastern Montana is borderline desert. Sage, prickly pear and other cacti are common, and Brent even heard a rattlesnake. I have never seen one, but I have seen many bullsnakes, which can be up to six feet long, and make me jump every time. Where there is water, we often hear the calls of western chorus frogs, which sound like running your finger across a comb. The area is also coal country, which isn’t obvious, except for the “red dog” roads (photo) made from mining waste. The Powder River basin supplies about 40% of the nation’s coal, carried by long trains of coal cars.

Red Dog Road in southeastern Montana.

Red Dog Road in southeastern Montana. Photo by Brent West, US FWS

An old grain elevator found in eastern Montana.

An old grain elevator found in eastern Montana. Photo by Brent West, US FWS