Overflight

Written by Walt Rhodes
Friday, June 05, 2015

Walt RhodesCrossing over the peaks of Glacier National Park on my way home, the flight appears to have symbolized the 2015 waterfowl breeding season.

There is a constant, underlying bickering within our group about the best waterfowl-breeding habitats. In one corner, the prairie crews say if it wasn’t for them there wouldn’t be any ducks. Boreal crews in the opposite corner counter with the fact that they may lack density but produce just as many ducks due to the region’s size. It is a good-natured little feud that adds to the dysfunctional family atmosphere of our group, but in reality each of us knows the importance of all of the continent’s waterfowl habitats, and it appears this is going to be evident again this spring once the numbers are crunched.

When the prairie habitats are wet, without question they crank out a lot of ducks. During those times, the boreal habitats support production of the usual diver species, namely buffleheads, scaup, goldeneyes, mergansers, and ring-necked ducks, and mallards, wigeon, and green-winged teal remain the common puddle ducks. But when the prairies start to get a little dehydrated, this is when the boreal lends a helping hand. During those conditions, arriving waterfowl on the prairies continue north in search of water, and where they find it is in the permanent-water habitats of the boreal forest. Think of the boreal forest as a finger-in-the-dike solution for breeding waterfowl during dry times on the prairies. Annual production may not be as high in dry years but the point remains that at least there is production and not a complete bust.

Some of the prairie crews, particularly in the Dakotas, have already discussed the lack wetlands this year, and the rains that did arrive came during the survey, mostly too late to benefit early-nesters such as mallards and pintails. While the majority of the boreal forest, particularly in the traditional survey area, received below-average snowfall, there is evidence that the region played its stop-gap role this spring. Numbers in our crew area indicate that a substantially greater number of rainbow ducks came to hang out and breed with the regular black-and-white ducks. For example, I recorded more mallards just on my side of the plane than BOTH observers usually record in this crew area. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there are going to be mallards hovering over everyone’s decoy spread come fall, but rather evidence that some level of an overflight may have occurred this spring. It is an interesting adaptation that waterfowl employ and, of course, we will not know if some level of an overflight occurred until all of the crew area estimates are produced and the giant jigsaw puzzle is assembled.

Past the overflight of craggy peaks I began a descent toward my family after three weeks on the road. Families are made up of units, and while squabbling occurs, each part supports a larger role, much like the crews (including the members back home) and habitats of the 2015 survey.

The peaks of Glacier National Park. (Photo courtesy of W. Rhodes, USFWS)

The peaks of Glacier National Park. (Photo courtesy of W. Rhodes, USFWS)

Permanent-water habitats of the boreal forest support breeding waterfowl that overfly the prairies during drier springs. (Photo courtesy of W. Rhodes, USFWS)

Permanent-water habitats of the boreal forest support breeding waterfowl that overfly the prairies during drier springs. (Photo courtesy of W. Rhodes, USFWS)

Permanent-water habitats of the boreal forest support breeding waterfowl that overfly the prairies during drier springs. (Photo courtesy of W. Rhodes, USFWS)