Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana Complete

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Rob Spangler
Monday, June 06, 2016

Rob SpanglerWe had a few more weather delays than in previous years, but we finally finished our survey at the end of May. Overall, conditions were improved in the Dakotas compared with last year. Late spring moisture helped to partially fill permanent and seasonal wetlands. Eastern Montana was similar to last year except conditions near Baker had improved somewhat and the areas adjacent to the Rockies saw a decline. In fact, many wetlands here are dry caused by low precipitation over the past few years. Overcrowding is evident in these wetlands and we anticipate lower production here. The nesting cover continues to be an issue across the state of Montana, where much of the territory is grazed heavily by cattle. Many wetlands are completely void of vegetation along their edges due to trampling and grazing, exacerbating habitat degradation where precipitation is below average. More precipitation allows cattle to spread out when watering, which helps prevent damage to fragile wetland edges. This was an interesting year with the most snow I had ever encountered on a breeding population survey. You know what they say, there is rarely ever an “average” year! Looking forward to next year and talk to you all then!

U.S. Ground Crews Wrap Up 2016

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Tony Roberts
Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Tony Roberts.I’m back in the office after a great season conducting the western Dakotas and eastern Montana ground surveys. Brad Rogers and I met up with Pam Garrettson and her crew in Minot, North Dakota after they finished the survey in the eastern Dakotas. We sent our crews towards their respective home bases and drove back to Laurel, Maryland over a couple days. Though it is nice to be with my family and sleep in my own bed, part of me misses the wide open vistas and abundant breeding waterfowl in the western United States.

Dry Near the Rockies but Bright Spot Found Near Lewistown

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Rob Spangler
Friday, May 20, 2016

Rob SpanglerWe finished stratum 42 in the southeastern portion of Montana and overall things are pretty dry. For the last couple of years the ponds and wetlands near the Rockies have been very low. Any ponds with decent water levels have many ducks crowded into them. After droning on for hours hardly seeing any ducks it gets fast and furious for a few seconds as we pass these hotspots. Then it is over just as quickly and we go back to observing habitat devoid of water or ducks. The exception is found near Lewistown, where recent rain and melting snow has filled wetlands and we have observed quite a bit of surface water in the fields as well. The water came a bit too late for birds migrating north, but it should allow late or repeat nesters in the area to spread out, increasing the probability of nesting success.

No News is Good News

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Tony Roberts
Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Tony Roberts.As I sit in the hotel in Lewistown, Montana, I’ve enjoyed catching up with the other entries by biologists across the traditional and eastern survey areas. We have been late to contribute to the survey narrative, but only because no news is good news. Due to great weather we have been counting ducks every day with long days in the field. We all enjoy the extensive field work and time outside, but that never lasts! We are now grounded due to 8 plus inches of snow after having mid-80 degree temps just a couple days ago. The weather gives us a chance to catch up on data entry, emails, and other more mundane tasks compared to sneaking up on prairie potholes so we don’t flush ducks, seeing herds of pronghorn and deer, and coming face to face with a porcupine.

Looking Dry in the Western Dakotas

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Rob Spangler
Sunday, May 08, 2016

Rob SpanglerWe have finished flying western North and South Dakota and conditions look pretty dry overall with the exception of areas around Pierre, South Dakota. Even though conditions are pretty dry we are seeing a few more birds than last year. Generally wetlands were dryer in the west than in the east. Although this dry spell can mean lower numbers of waterfowl in the short term, there are long term benefits from the dry and wet cycles that occur over time. Yes, drought can be important to breeding ducks! This is particularly true in the depression-type wetlands found in the Dakotas – the Prairie Pothole Region. When these wetlands stay filled over long periods of time, their productivity stagnates. When aquatic plants grow they absorb available nutrients and as they die, they “lock” them up in a layer of detritus (dead material) at the bottom of the pond. Here, available oxygen is used up quickly in the process of decomposition. When the oxygen levels get low, decomposition slows and nutrients are not released but instead, are held in this organic sludge at the bottom. If a wetland is allowed to dry occasionally, this sludge comes in contact with oxygen, microbes, etc., and the decomposition process can continue making the nutrients available again to plants. When the dry wetland fills again, the nutrients are readily available for use by plants and productivity increases dramatically – improving growth of forage and cover for ducks.

Survey Begins in the Dakotas

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Rob Spangler
Friday, May 06, 2016

Rob SpanglerGreetings everyone from the Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana crew! We departed for this year’s survey on May 2nd after waiting out another snowstorm in Colorado. So much for the apple blossoms and the apple crop in the backyard this year! I guess the cider recipe will have to wait another year. Tony Roberts and Brad Rogers, our trusty ground crew, arrived in Pierre, South Dakota, ahead of me anticipating my arrival. I am lucky to have Brenda Kelly, Waterfowl Biologist, from Wisconsin DNR to assist as aerial observer again this year. We all felt a little anxious to get started as the breeding phenology was progressing quickly. After a warm-up flight to brush up on our distance estimation and waterfowl ID we started the survey on May 3rd.

Montana is Complete

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Rob Spangler
Thursday, May 28, 2015

Rob SpanglerWhen the weather finally cleared we had six straight days of good flying weather. After sitting for six days due to rain, it was surprising how little water was seen on the landscape. With the dry conditions, most moisture was absorbed into the soil, leaving little to fill wetlands and reservoirs. Less than half of the wetlands had any water to speak of and many reservoirs were 25-40% of capacity. The habitat in Medicine Lake, a notable waterfowl haven, had decreased considerably from last year and birds there were crowded into available ponds and lakes. This was the trend in many areas – where water was found, densities of waterfowl were high, leading to overcrowding in areas with little nesting vegetation.

Weather Causes Delays in Montana

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Rob Spangler
Sunday, May 17, 2015

Rob SpanglerCurrently, rain and low ceilings have kept us from flying our surveys, but also gave us a little time to catch up on data, paperwork, and laundry. We need to have a 100-hour inspection completed on N705 mid-survey this year, and the weather has given us a chance to open up all the inspection panels, change oil, conduct compression checks on the engine, inspect brakes, hydraulic lines, etc. This process typically takes a couple days if everything checks out. If a part needs to be replaced or repair made, we could be down for several more days, but things look good for this inspection. The guys here in Lewistown were great and stayed into the weekend to make sure we got it completed. N705 has a clean bill of health and we are ready for the next flying day.

Stratum 43 Complete and Conditions Improved Somewhat

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Brenday Kelly
Saturday, May 16, 2015

Brenda KellyGreetings from the Treasure State and the Montana/Dakotas aerial crew. We’ve completed North Dakota (Stratum 43) and have made our way to our current base in Lewistown, Montana—located in the geographic center of the state. The rains that occurred during the second week of May in North Dakota recharged the wetlands, and after having completed the western Dakotas and southern transects of Montana, it is apparent that it is definitely drier this year than last year. When not in the air or ground traversing our transects, there is still work to get caught up on from our home stations, but we also take the opportunity to venture out and connect with the beautiful surrounding landscape and visit with the wonderful people that call this area home.

Charmed and Enchanted

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Tony Roberts
Sunday, May 10, 2015

Tony Roberts.Third time’s a charm, right? This is my first experience helping to conduct the Breeding Population and Habitat Survey, during the 60th year of its operation. Pam Garrettson (a seasoned veteran of the survey) and I were hoping to get a good start and make some progress before the inevitable weather delays. Though we missed most of the weather, we’ve had a slow start to the ground portion of the western Dakotas and eastern Montana survey, mostly due to vehicle issues. But on our third try we made it out of Pierre, SD, and are now in Dickinson, ND, working our way through the survey. We have completed half of the air-grounds (the name of sections of transects used to correct for visual detection from the air), and are enjoying seeing ducks.

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