Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana

Stratum 44 Completed and It is Dry

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Rob Spangler
Friday, May 08, 2015

Rob SpanglerWe completed stratum 44 today (western South Dakota) and conditions are much drier than last year (see pictures in my previous post). Many wetlands and small streams are dry and/or running low, and there are not many ducks here, either. The birds have likely moved to better habitat elsewhere. Reservoirs and wetlands that have water are probably at about 25% capacity. We predict low production in stratum 44 this year.

Traveling Light

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Pam Garrettson
Thursday, May 07, 2015

Pam Garrettson.Tony and I have finished all the air-ground segments in South Dakota, but tonight find ourselves back at our starting point, the capital city of Pierre, SD (pronounce it “Peer” or they’ll know you’re not from around here). Our truck was supposed to be fixed by today, but the part still hasn’t arrived. Meanwhile, we’ve been surveying out of various rental vehicles, transferring supplies and equipment from one to another, schlepping up to the northern part of the state and now back. And once again, I have brought too much stuff. Oh sure, I make my lists and try to pare them down, but find myself thinking, “we might need that..” and it’s a big truck, so I toss it in.

Timing is Good; Survey is Underway

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Brenda Kelly and Rob Spangler
Sunday, May 03, 2015

Rob SpanglerHello and greetings from Pierre, South Dakota, and your Dakotas/Montana Aerial Crew (Rob Spangler – Biologist/Pilot and Brenda Kelly, Biologist). Yesterday, we flew a mission to test our fixed transect width, survey computers, and to observe social phenology of waterfowl. After landing, we met up with our trusty ground crew (Pam Garrettson and Tony Roberts) to look at wetlands and birds at ground level. Social pairing of mallard, northern pintail, blue winged teal, northern shoveler and other species were observed with a good percentage of single drakes, so it looks like our timing was about perfect for the start. Today we flew two transects located in central South Dakota. From our aerial observations, conditions appear to be much drier this year compared to last, as many potholes and dugouts are dried out. Keep in mind, we’ve just started so there likely is a different story to the north and west, but production in this part of the country will probably be lower than last year.

Ground Crew Temporarily Grounded

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Pam Garrettson
Sunday, May 03, 2015

Pam Garrettson.We started our first day of ground surveys today, and they went very smoothly—for about two hours. I’m out here with Tony Roberts, a biologist who started with the Division of Migratory Bird Management several months ago. Our job on the survey is to count waterfowl and wetlands on selected portions of the transects that the air crew flies. Our counts are divided by their counts to calculate a visual correction factor for each species, which is then used to adjust their counts for the entire crew area. We drive these air-ground segments and count from the road when possible, but if we don’t have an unencumbered view, we park and walk to wetlands and along streams, sometimes quite a few miles in a day.

No News is Good News

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Pam Garrettson
Friday, May 30, 2014

Pam Garrettson.The big story this year was that there really wasn’t much of one, and really, that’s a good thing. Everything went smoothly, the weather was good, there was some water, and some ducks, we put a lot of miles on the truck, and got back almost as early as I ever have. So, let’s talk about the weather. Generally, it was cool and overcast, and it rained a few days. On average, temperatures were about 20 degrees cooler than last year. As Rob and I have noted, it was considerably wetter than last year. On our air-ground segments, we counted 76% more ponds than last year, and more than twice as many ducks.

Overall Conditions Improved from Last Year

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Rob Spangler
Sunday, May 25, 2014

Rob SpanglerWe have finished our survey this year and headed back home to our families and offices. Overall, the better conditions have continued throughout the survey area compared with last year, which will benefit waterfowl this year. In central Montana we did observe dryer conditions with higher percentages of dry natural wetlands and artificial basins at 50 – 70% of capacity, whereas basins in the extreme eastern and western portions of the survey area were at or near capacity. Because of the large number of artificial wetlands (stock dams and dugouts), sometimes it can be more useful to describe these as percent full rather than a total count of wetlands. We were fortunate this year to experience better weather and had fewer days down because of rain, fog, or wind. Last year, we spent an extra week in Malta, Montana, due to weather. Thanks to our ground crew of Pam Garrettson, Brent West, and Brenda Kelly – they all did an outstanding job and it was a pleasure to work with them. See you next year!

Southern Montana Looking Better Than Last Year

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Rob Spangler
Thursday, May 22, 2014

Rob SpanglerSince our last post we have flown a few thousand more miles of transects across Montana. As ground crew leader Pam Garrettson noted in one of her earlier posts, southern Montana does not naturally contain a great deal of waterfowl habitat. That said, the conditions are improved over what we observed last year. One shortcoming of many of the wetlands in Montana is the lack of cover around the edges, due to farming practices or intense cattle use. Upland nesting species such as the northern pintail can be directly affected due to lack of vegetation along the wetland edge. In biological studies, researchers found that pintails select nesting sites in proportion to habitat availability. For example, if 50% of the wetland habitats in a given area were in agriculture stubble with no edge cover, and 50% were natural wetlands with better edge habitat, northern pintail nests would be distributed in approximately the same 50:50 split. Mallards, on the other hand, have been observed selecting for better nesting cover. So, using the same mixture of habitats mentioned above, maybe 70% of the mallards would nest in the better habitat area, with only 30% nesting in the agriculture stubble. Cover is one of the main variables influencing rates of predation, and hence, those nests found in stubble field wetlands could experience higher predation. Researchers hypothesize that is one reason why northern pintails did not respond to the improved prairie habitat conditions of the 1990s, while mallards, on the other hand, did respond favorably to the improved conditions.

Even the Drier Areas Have Ducks

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
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.

Road Warriors

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Pam Garrettson
Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Pam Garrettson.We have now finished all the air-ground segments in North Dakota, and did our first day of surveying in Montana today. The ground crew’s job is to count a sample of the segments that the air crew surveys, and the ratio of the number of ducks (by species) that we see to the number that the air crew sees is used as a correction factor in calculating population estimates. This visual correction factor (vcf) can vary by year, crew area, and species. When possible, it is calculated on an annual basis, but for rarer species, several years of data may need to be used to calculate a vcf.

Western South and North Dakota Complete

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Rob Spangler
Sunday, May 11, 2014

Rob SpanglerWe have finished our work in the Dakotas (Strata 43 and 44) and conditions look good there overall. Most reservoirs, dug outs, and natural wetlands that were dry or low last year are full with sheet water present in some areas. We found some of the best habitat conditions on the eastern portion of our transect lines in and around Bismarck and Garrison. Although analysis of the data has not been complete, numbers of birds appear to be higher this year and the conditions look promising for waterfowl in the Dakotas this spring.

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