Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana

"Crunchiness"

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Pam Garrettson
Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Pam Garrettson.“Crunchiness.” That’s what Brent West said to me when I asked him what I should write about. We’re out here together again doing the air-ground corrections in the Western Dakotas-Eastern Montana crew area, and we just finished up South Dakota. For a puzzled second I thought he was contemplating trading in his hunting boots for some Birkenstocks, but he wasn’t talking about the ground crew, he was talking about the ground. Last year it was so dry, the ground literally crunched underneath our feet. This year the soil is soft, even spongy in spots, wetland basins are full, and there’s water from recent rains pooled in the fields.

2014 Survey Begins!

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Rob Spangler
Sunday, May 04, 2014

Rob SpanglerThis morning we kicked off the 2014 Breeding Population and Habitat Survey. We took off out of Pierre, South Dakota and flew almost directly west for our first transect line. We were encouraged to see the good habitat conditions present from Pierre to Rapid City, with many basins 80 to 100% full. This is a big difference from last year when this area was really dry. The recent rains helped considerably. We are seeing good numbers of gadwall, blue-winged teal, mallard, and northern shoveler, with a scattering of pintail as well. Production should be much better than last year in western South Dakota. So far, so good!

Met With Ground Crew - Everything is Ready

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Rob Spangler
Saturday, May 03, 2014

Rob SpanglerToday, we met up with our excellent ground crew (waterfowl biologists Pam Garrettson and Brent West) and went out to look at a dozen wetlands in the area. We found that pairing had progressed well. There was nearly a 50:50 ratio of mallard pairs to single drakes, and a 35:65 ratio for blue-winged teal, northern shoveler and gadwall. Overall there were a few flocked drakes for all species and few large groups of birds. It looks like things are ready and the weather is holding so we are planning to start our first transects tomorrow morning at sunrise.

Calibrating for the Survey

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Rob Spangler
Friday, May 02, 2014

Rob SpanglerBrenda and I took to the air today to calibrate our transect width—to ensure we are only counting birds within 200 meters on either side of the aircraft. The survey calculations are based on this transect width, so it is very important that all flight crews calibrate their observations. To do this, we flew just north of Pierre, South Dakota, where there are a lot of agricultural pivots that are useful in measuring distance on the ground. A standard pivot has a radius of 400 meters, so half of that equates to our 200-meter limit. To calibrate our estimates, we fly at 120 feet above ground level at 90 knots and look out to our side of the aircraft–Brenda to the right and me to the left. Once we see the 200 meter mark on the pivots we notice where that point falls on the wing strut and place a piece of electrical tape to mark the distance (see photo). Now we both have a reference point to help us determine if wetland habitat and waterfowl are to be counted or excluded. Additionally, we flew over habitats that were “on the line” and tested between Brenda and myself for consistency.

Arriving in South Dakota

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Rob Spangler
Thursday, May 01, 2014

Rob SpanglerWe’ve packed N705 and are headed to Pierre, South Dakota to start our survey. This year I have Brenda Kelly as my observer, a very experienced waterfowl biologist and aerial observer from Wisconsin. I am happy to have her in the air with me. As we pass over Colorado and Nebraska things look pretty dry, but we are pleasantly surprised by South Dakota. Recent rains have given things a boost and filled wetlands just in time. From this quick look, conditions appear better than last year.

Survey Completed and Conditions Improve in Northeastern Montana

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Rob Spangler
Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Rob SpanglerWe were happy to end the survey on a better note and see some more water with basins at 50-75% of capacity. Recent rains have helped conditions quite a bit, but the water has come a little too late to make a big difference in eastern Montana. We observed large aggregations of gadwall in particular, similar to what we observed to the south. That said, we saw more waterfowl breeding pairs than we have during the entire survey here which was encouraging. The best conditions lie from just north of Malta, Montana running east to the border of Montana and North Dakota. The Medicine Lake Wildlife Refuge was holding good numbers of waterfowl, including canvasback and a lot of gadwall, northern shoveler and of course, mallard. This refuge was established back in 1935 to preserve wildlife and includes over 28,000 acres of habitat, and was definitely the bright spot for this year’s survey.

By the Numbers

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Pam Garrettson
Friday, May 24, 2013

Pam Garrettson.We finished the last of our air-ground transects on May 24th. That last air-ground, in northeastern Montana, had more water than the other areas we had covered, but it wasn’t great. Stock dams were typically at least half full, with quite a few ducks, but there were no small wetlands, so there was a lot of crowding on what was available. We did count quite a few pintails, and the upland cover was in better shape for them than the desolate pastures in the southern part of the crew area.

Big Sky Country

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Pam Garrettson
Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Pam Garrettson.Montana is big sky country, and for a couple of east-coasters (Brent’s from Maine; I’m from Maryland), it can feel both freeing and disconcerting. We’re surveying 200m on either side of an east-west line, and often can see far beyond that. From a high bluff at the end of a segment east of Miles City, we guessed we could see a couple hundred miles. At home, well, you can’t see the forest for the trees. In this mostly treeless landscape, wildlife often make do without. We had puzzled over the number of great-horned owls we’d seen, then Brent came upon a nest on the ledge of a cut-bank stream (see photo). It wasn’t a great spot, because one of the chicks had fallen to a lower ledge, but it appeared fine and a parent was tending it. Surveying the occasional wooded stream can be very exciting; migrating warblers and sparrows often just pile in, lacking alternatives.

Southeastern Montana Completed and the Dry Conditions Continue

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Rob Spangler
Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Rob SpanglerThe habitat in southeastern Montana is very dry this year - similar to the western Dakotas. Basins are averaging 20-30% of capacity and there are many that are dry altogether. We are also starting to observe larger groups of birds (males and females) that could be skipping breeding this year instead of flying north into Canada for better conditions. Ducks do not breed very well when they are crowded into the few ponds we are finding. When crowding conditions occur breeding success is often lower due to stress of interaction and lack of suitable nesting areas. Lack of water also concentrates cattle on vegetation around available water, destroying nesting cover. Based on the increased numbers of waterfowl that our biologists are observing just to the north we are hopeful that many of these birds wised up and set up camp in Canada this spring.

Oil and Water

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana
Written by Pam Garrettson
Sunday, May 19, 2013

Pam Garrettson.I never thought I would say the words “traffic jam,” and “North Dakota” in the same sentence, but that’s what happened to us last week as we traveled south on what was once a very remote stretch of highway 22 that runs through the badlands between New Town and Dickinson. Oil and gas production has changed the area dramatically; in places it looked like pictures of the Middle East. The rugged buttes are still breathtaking, when you can see around the highway widening operations that teetered on the edge of sheer drops. Brent deftly dodged streams of huge trucks carrying oil or the water used to pump it out of the ground, and I just marveled at how so much had changed since I was last out here in 2007.

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