Aerial & Ground Crew Blog

Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey Reports

This survey is conducted each spring by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, state wildlife agencies and the Canadian Wildlife Service to estimate the size of breeding waterfowl populations across North America and to evaluate habitat conditions on the breeding grounds. These surveys are conducted using airplanes, helicopters, and ground crews, and cover over 2 million square miles that encompass the principal breeding areas of many species of waterfowl in North America. The traditional survey area comprises parts of Alaska, Canada, and the north-central U.S., and covers approximately 1.3 million square miles. The eastern survey area includes parts of Ontario, Quebec, Labrador, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, New York and Maine, covering an area of approximately 0.7 million square miles.  Sixteen crews will be sharing reports and photos this year.  See the results of  last year’s survey (6.1MB).

To view more survey photos, please visit our  Flickr website!

It Takes More Than Just Water to Raise Ducks

Written by Jim Bredy

June 8, 2017 Southern and Central Alberta

The Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habit survey in Southern and Central Alberta came to a close two and a half weeks ago. I have been flying this part of Alberta for portions of four decades now.

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As the survey progressed north from the Alberta/Montana border, the habitat conditions improved. We observed fair conditions in the shortgrass prairie of Southeastern Alberta near Medicine Hat. The current wetland conditions in the Aspen Parkland Habitats are some of the best that I can recall. Some of the air-ground comparison segments, had all-time to near all-time records of recorded ducks on them. However, Beaverhill Lake, near Edmonton, which used to be a large mecca for nesting and staging waterfowl migrations, is still mostly dry. One can only guess as to why, after the wet summer to spring period that occurred. However, the hydrology of the area appears to have changed.

The habitat conditions also improved from last year in Stratum 75, the area between Edmonton- Cold Lake and Lesser Slave Lake, Alberta. As we progressed to the Peace Region, we noticed some of the best wetland conditions in my memory. However multiple previous drought years have taken their toll on the quality of wetland basins. The drought years have allowed access to previously inaccessible wetland basins. A large portion of the central Peace Region is comprised of heavily-used agricultural areas, with little vegetation around wetland basins. The water- holding capacity of wetland basins is not the same once they are tilled. In other words, it takes more than just water to raise ducks.

There is a bright spot in the Peace Region: the edges of Stratum 76. This area does indeed have improved wetland AND the ever important habitat conditions.

Overall impressions for this survey area are improved wetland and habitat conditions from last year. We observed more ducks this year than last. The final numbers will be determined after our excellent population and habitat assessment staff calculate the numbers. These numbers are calculated using the difference in what we see from the air, and from what the Canadian Wildlife Service ground crews see from the ground, on specified segments.

After everything, we are thus hopeful for increased waterfowl production from Southern and Central Alberta this year.

 

Bonus Year

Written by Brad Pendley

June 3, 2017 Western Ontario and Quebec

We are off and running on my “bonus year”. Many observers have day jobs as refuge biologists, myself included. We sign up for a 3-year stint flying May surveys across the nesting grounds.

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I have been lucky enough to fly Ontario and Northern Quebec for the past 3 years. My boss was kind enough to allow me another trip north, a bonus year.

We started out in typical fashion, rush north and wait. We hit the ground in Kapuskasing, Ontario to immediately have to wait for weather to pass. After a brief delay, we were up and running and boy did we make a run. We flew nine of eleven days with a stretch of seven straight. As they say where I am from, we made hay while the sun shone.

Ontario went well. We have some long lines that go pretty far to the North. Many of the northern lakes were frozen with a ring of open water around the edge. These are great conditions for viewing and counting. The habitat conditions varied over much of the area. It was nice to visit and see locals who have become friends. We even have the opportunity to enjoy a home-cooked meal on occasion and catch up on important topics such as the float plane business, how harsh winter was, and how the fishing season has started.

We’re now in Northern Quebec and Labrador. I see many of the same faces I have the previous 3 years and we are always greeted with a smile and a "welcome back." Counting here is very different from Ontario. We have some lines down on the coast and lines through the mountains. It is more demanding on my pilot, Jim Wortham, and honestly, for me. The ups and down we go through on the lines makes it hard to see those black ducks that insist on setting in what looks like wetlands the size of mud puddles down in the trees. We pop over a hill and sure enough, there they set, right in the hardest spot to see them. We have a few days left and will finish with a line that ends in Hudson Bay. Maybe this year I’ll get to see that straggling polar bear. What a bonus that would be for me on this bonus year!

Down for a break
plane Down for a break Photo Credit: Brad Pendley USFWS

Hey, I know you
two planes together Photo Credit: Brad Pendley USFWS

White water
Arieal photo of White water Photo Credit: Brad Pendley USFWS

Wetlands along the coast
Wetlands along the coast Photo Credit: Brad Pendley USFWS

 

Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec crew photo  Photo Credit: USFWS

Water, whiskey and toaster ovens

Written by Steve Earsom

June 2, 2017 Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec

Here is how I was planning to start this blog:

“As Mark Twain’s old saw goes, ‘Whiskey is for drinkin’, and water is for fightin’.’”

But there are two problems.

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First, I checked a couple of sources, and it seems that no one can verify that Twain really said it. In fact, one source can only find references as far back as the 1980s. Twain died in 1910. Bummer, I wanted to quote old Samuel. The second problem: I made the mistake of looking up the term “old saw.” Synonyms for “saw” are “saying,” “maxim” or “proverb.” None of these become widely known overnight, so they’re all old. Hence, an “old saw” is redundant. The third problem (yes, I found another) is that there is so much water in our crew area this year, it’s hard to imagine what the fight would be about, unless it’s over who gets to use the canoe to go buy whiskey.

I’ll argue Canadians have increased the distances they can paddle canoes over the years via construction of dams. Non sequitur, you say? The country supposedly has over 10,000 dams, and is one of the world’s largest producers of hydropower. Those dams stop you from paddling, not make it easier, you say. Well, like many folks, I’ve always thought of tall dams and big reservoirs - Hoover Dam, Lake Mead and the like – that impeded wild rivers. However, a dam can only be as tall as the surrounding hills, and with the gently rolling terrain in much of our crew area, the water is often held in a vast network of barely-connected lakes rather than a single reservoir. It’s stored horizontally rather than vertically.

Said another way, when you look out the window of the aircraft, you see many water bodies, but it is impossible in most cases to say which lakes are completely natural, and which are now connected to a hydropower facility that might be over a hundred miles away. I’ve heard more than one (unverified) story about a dam causing the river to flow the opposite direction, and people having to relocate because the planned reservoir would leave their home underwater. This inundation also changes the type of wetland habitats available, replacing riparian wetlands, beaver ponds and other shallow, sometimes ephemeral wetlands with larger water bodies. On the positive side, roughly 60% of Canadians’ light bulbs and toaster ovens are powered by water, as compared to around 6% for the US. Have a look at this interactive site that shows  locations of hydropower facilities across Canada.

So what’s my point with these meanders? If I have one, it’s simply to say that we could “mark twain” in much of Ontario and Quebec this year due to April showers. Other meanders, as on a river, are simply there to be explored and enjoyed by the reader.

Full wetlands in Quebec
Full wetlands in Quebec  Photo credit: Steve Earsom.USFWS

Busy beavers
At least 5 beaver dams can be seen holding water in this wetland complex in Quebec.
At least 5 beaver dams can be seen holding water in this wetland complex in Quebec. Photo credit: Steve Earsom.USFWS

Rendezvous in Chibougamau
Two flight crews momentarily cross paths. L to R: Nate Carle, Brad Pendley and Jim Wortham, along with N708 and N723.
 Two flight crews momentarily cross paths.  L to R: Nate Carle, Brad Pendley and Jim Wortham, along with N708 and N723. Photo credit: Steve Earsom.usfws

Rain shower over western Quebec
Rain shower over western Quebec Photo Credit:Steve Earsom USFWS

 

Maine and Atlantic Canada survey crew for 2017, Biologist/Pilot, Mark Koneff, and Biologist/Observer, Heidi Hanlon, in front of Quest Kodiak Amphibian N769  Photo Credit: USFWS

Newfoundland and Labrador in the Bag

Written by Mark Koneff

June 1, 2017 Maine and Atlantic Canada

We spent four days in Halifax, Nova Scotia, waiting out heavy snow and high winds in Newfoundland before making a late day jump across the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Stephenville, Newfoundland. Our patience was rewarded with three flying days out of four, which allowed us to knock out all of southern Newfoundland rather quickly.

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Conditions were generally good across the interior and the coast and even the highest elevations in southwestern Newfoundland had ice free lakes and wetlands. Evidence of an extremely snowy winter were still evident at higher elevations with very deep snow drifts in valleys.

After a no-fly day we completed the north peninsula of Newfoundland, ending in St. Anthony at the northern extreme of the island. This area is famous for L’anse aux Meadows, the only documented site occupied by the Norse in North America (around 1000 AD). We spent 3 days in St. Anthony in freezing fog, freezing drizzle, and periods of heavy snow. The break was well-timed with required crew rest days anyway and we were able to take in some of the dramatic scenery in the area. We left Newfoundland in late May to begin the Labrador survey. Similar to conditions in northern Newfoundland, coastal southeast Labrador was largely locked in ice and snow. Conditions improved dramatically approximately 60 miles inland and interior Labrador was ice and snow free with good conditions for breeding waterfowl.

After three long survey days straight in Labrador we tied a bow on the 2017 survey, just ahead of a persistent upper level low drifting slowly eastward bring low ceilings and poor visibility. It was a long haul, as usual, but the scenery and wildlife of this amazing area make it well worth it. Until next year…

Wetlands of interior Newfoundland.
Wetlands of interior Newfoundland. Photo Credit: USFWS

First iceberg observation of the year near St. John’s, Newfoundland.
First iceberg observation of the year near St. John’s, Newfoundland. Photo Credit: USFWS

Tundra wetlands of interior Newfoundland.
Tundra wetlands of interior Newfoundland. Photo Credit: USFWS

Cape St. George, Newfoundland on a weather day.
Cape St. George, Newfoundland on a weather day. Photo Credit: USFWS

South-eastern coastal Labrador still locked in ice in late May.
South-eastern coastal Labrador still locked in ice in late May. Photo Credit: USFWS

Wetlands of interior Labrador largely ice free and waterfowl breeding underway.
TWetlands of interior Labrador largely ice free and waterfowl breeding underway. Photo Credit: USFWS

Interior Labrador is endless, unbroken forest with characteristic lichen covered forest floor.
Interior Labrador is endless, unbroken forest with characteristic lichen covered forest floor Photo Credit: USFWS

 

Survey Preparation

Written by Jim Wortham

May 31, 2017 Western Ontario and Quebec

We are preparing to outfit the airplane with the appropriate survival, first aid, and camping gear for the Canada waterfowl surveys. The trick is to balance all of the essential gear while keeping the aircraft as light as possible as to maximize the amount of fuel that can we can carry.

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Brad Pendley, the Refuge Biologist for Mingo National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri, will be returning to serve as observer for our assigned areas of western Ontario and northern Quebec. Winter has been reluctant to leave western Ontario and although surrounding areas have embraced spring, snow cover and frozen lakes persist from north of the Great Lakes up to James Bay. To take advantage of the delay, I am taking the amphibious Kodiak down to the Dry Tortugas to fly a mission for the National Park Service; it will be difficult to pack for the cold of Canada while wearing flip flops in Key West.

Finally, when I depart Florida I will stop in Kentucky to pick up Brad, and then we head for the border. It will take a full two days to get into position from which to begin the survey, and our first transect will take us all the way from central Ontario to Manitoba, the equivalent of counting ducks from Cincinnati to Kansas City!

Delays in spring allowed time for a quick mission to the Dry Tortugas Photo Credit: Jim Wortham
Delays in spring allowed time for a quick mission to the Dry Tortugas Photo Credit: Jim Wortham.USFWS

Getting started out of Sioux Lookout, Ontario Photo Credit: Rich Hulina
Getting started out of Sioux Lookout, Ontario Photo Credit: Rich Hulina.USFWS

 

air crew montana and western dakotas 2017 spangler left and anthony right. Photo credit: Rob Spangler/USFWS

Finished up Eastern Montana

Written by Rob Spangler

May 25, 2017 Western Montana and Eastern Dakotas

We just finished up Eastern Montana and conditions improved as we moved north. The southern portions of the state continued their dry trend with water basins only filled to about 20% of capacity.

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Again, the little water that was present was inundated with cattle making nesting difficult for waterfowl. The southeastern portion of the state suffered the worst with many basins and streams nearly dry.

Moving north, conditions improved with basins filled to about 40% of capacity. Wetland habitat was considered good near Great Falls and continuing to the northwest, where more than normal precipitation over the last year filled wetlands to over 75% of capacity. Fair habitat conditions presided over the central and eastern portions of the state. However, there was a bright spot around Malta where large amounts of precipitation had filled all available permanent wetlands and created many seasonal and temporary wet areas. Flooding of larger wetlands extended the waterline up into vegetation greatly improving nesting cover habitat. Good conditions prevailed near the Canadian border and we expect good production in these areas.

Well, that’s a wrap! See you next year.

 

Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec crew photo  Photo Credit: USFWS

On the Shoulders of Giants

Written by Steve Earsom

May 23, 2017 Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec

I’m honored to again lead one of over a dozen crews on this 62nd annual survey for migratory birds, conducted across the northern United States and Canada. Most consider this to be the longest-running and largest-scale survey in the world and, as such, it takes a tremendous amount of planning and expertise to execute it safely and efficiently.

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My crew area includes eastern Ontario and western Quebec. We start in the south near Toronto, crocheting lines east and west, and follow the wave of migration as it slowly moves north and into higher elevations. During our several weeks of travel, we will reach as far east as the northern tip of Maine, back west to places with names like Manitouwadge, Pagwachuan River, and Kabinakagami Lake, and ever northward, eventually flying over rivers that flow to the Hudson Bay, and where lichens provide food and black pines provide cover for the rare woodland caribou. Along the way we’ll record our sightings of more than two dozen migratory bird species, which are used to make a myriad of conservation decisions.

As in the past, we fly near treetop level at about 100 mph, using only our eyes to detect and identify all species. It still seems unfathomable to me when I explain it to others, and I have grown accustomed to the mix of reactions, from amazement to wrinkled brows to downright disbelief. The really amazing part to me is the fact that we do this with a plethora of electronic navigational and data recording tools, whereas the pioneers of this survey used only paper maps, a compass, and a stopwatch for navigation, all the while keeping track of observations with paper and pencil.

And speaking of pioneers, we lost one of those hardy souls earlier this year, as Fred Glover has “gone west.” Fred authored “Muskeg to Mangrove,” a fascinating recounting of the early days of the biologist/pilot when exploratory surveys were conducted from northern Canada all the way to Central America. So hats (or flight helmets) off to Dr. Glover for all his contributions to natural resource conservation. We truly stand on the shoulders of this giant.

Wetlands are full
Wetlands across SE Ontario and SW Quebec are uniformly full this year.
Wetlands across SE Ontario and SW Quebec are uniformly full this year.  Photo credit: Steve Earsom.USFWS

Georgian Bay near Killarney, ON Photo credit: Steve Earsom.
Georgian Bay near Killarney, ON Photo credit: Steve Earsom.USFWS

Thumbs up!
Nate Carle is ready to tend the aircraft as we approach the dock in N723.
 Nate Carle is ready to tend the aircraft as we approach the dock in N723.  Photo credit: Steve Earsom.usfws

At the end of the day
Plane at dock Photo Credit:Steve Earsom USFWS

 

I’m not making any promises.

Written by Sarah Yates

May 21, 2017 Southern Manitoba-Southeastern Saskatchewan

Things are starting to come together up here in the Southern Manitoba and Southeastern Saskatchewan crew area. I have to say it’s been a tough year with a rough start.

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While I had expected to start the survey around May 2nd, I actually didn’t start until May 10th. I had a week delay on my 12 hour trip from Maine to Manitoba due to weather and icing conditions. Once the survey was started we had more weather delays with lots of fronts making their way west to east and bringing along with them high winds, wind shear, and precipitation. So, we are taking things day by day this year and not making any promises (like I’ll be there on May 2nd!).

We have completed all the strata with air-ground crews as of May 21st. Conditions are much better than last year and the increased number of wetlands this year should benefit breeding and brooding waterfowl. We’ve seen the two extremes the last few years going from too much water on the landscape to too little. I would say this year can be considered more normal wetland conditions and hopefully the ducks will benefit from it.

There are also the typical problem areas that are consistently poor for waterfowl no matter what the year due to expanding agricultural development and the corresponding wetland drainage. The drainage ditches that are being dug to increase agricultural production create new surface water connections between wetlands that were previously isolated in order to eventually drain them into roadside ditches and streams. These new connections lead to degraded water quality and eventually increase stream and river outputs leading to flooding damage downstream of the drainage activity.

In the next few days we move from prairie pothole habitat to the parklands. We’ll see lots of trees and a few more boreal species of waterfowl over the next few days. We are looking forward to the change in scenery and hopefully finishing up our last two strata and heading home this week if weather allows. But, like I mentioned above, I’m not making any promises.

Early morning ground fog.
Early morning ground fog.USFWS

Plenty of water on the landscape.
Plenty of water on the landscape.USFWS

Semi-permanent wetlands are full.
Semi-permanent wetlands are full.USFWS

Pothole habitat in Stratum 39.
Pothole habitat in Stratum 39.USFWS

 

2016 Eastern Dakotas aerial crew upon completion of the survey at Devil's Lake, ND; Terry Liddick and Dave Fronczak

Complete

Written by Terry Liddick

May 19, 2017 Eastern Dakotas

On May 19 th the eastern Dakotas crew completed the 2017 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey. With the final flight out of Minot, we surveyed the northeastern section of North Dakota while the ground crew was completing the air/ground segment near Kenmare, North Dakota.

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As usual, the segments in stratum 47 were nearly free of ducks and water, but the portions surveyed in stratum 45 north of Devil’s Lake looked pretty good this year. That seemed to be the theme in North Dakota. Most of North Dakota looked significantly better than South Dakota and it was nice to see a fair amount of water across the landscape once again.

After completing the survey and getting a good look across the prairie pothole region of the Dakotas, I’d expect a good production year. While South Dakota mostly remained dry, North Dakota may make up for some of the shortcomings there. Of note were a seemingly greater numbers of northern pintails and canvasbacks across North Dakota. All other waterfowl species seemed about average for the survey period. Spring is progressing well and hopefully some rain will continue across the region to keep the wetlands full through the brood rearing period. Although the brakes were put on the spring a bit, as we finished, you could see the leaves beginning to emerge in the northern reaches of the survey area. We were still not seeing large groups of males to speak of and the timing of the survey looked pretty good.

We were able to conduct the survey in just about minimal time, with only a two day delay for the plane to undergo an inspection and then one weather day while we were in Minot, North Dakota. Thanks again to my trusted observer, Dave Fronczak. This is the seventh year that we have flown the survey together. And thanks to Stephen LaJeune who headed up the ground crew this year. This was Stephen’s fourth year on the ground crew. Maintaining the consistency of the crew certainly helps things move along smoother as well as provides much more consistency in the data. I am not sure yet what the more northern reaches of the prairie pothole region will produce, but the Dakotas should contribute their fair share of ducks to the fall flight this year. Happy hunting and see you next year.

 

air crew montana and western dakotas 2017 spangler left and anthony right. Photo credit: Rob Spangler/USFWS

Finished Flying the Dakotas

Written by Rob Spangler

May 19, 2017 Western Montana and Eastern Dakotas

Ryan and I just finished flying North and South Dakota flying before flying a line in to Lewistown Montana for another week or two of surveys. South Dakota is still relatively dry although the eastern portion of our lines fared a bit better.

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You may recall that last year, western South Dakota was very dry. We are seeing similar numbers of temporary and permanent wetlands, but they are much smaller this year and the stream discharge is much less. The bathtub-like rings around the permanent wetlands offer little for nesting cover and most of the western portion of the state is probably rated as poor for waterfowl production potential.

Moving into North Dakota we found the western portion of the state (within about 150 miles of the border with Montana) in poor condition as well. Conditions were extremely dry and the little water that was present had little for nesting cover. These watered areas also had high cattle usage further limiting available habitat. Conditions to the east improved considerably with wetlands filled from spring rain. Here, we were on the edge of the highly productive prairie pothole region and most of the wetlands held significant water. This area could be considered as having good potential for waterfowl production.

 

Maine and Atlantic Canada survey crew for 2017, Biologist/Pilot, Mark Koneff, and Biologist/Observer, Heidi Hanlon, in front of Quest Kodiak Amphibian N769  Photo Credit: USFWS

Hurry Up and Wait

Written by Mark Koneff

May 19, 2017 Maine and Atlantic Canada

Yesterday we arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, having completed the 4 survey strata that comprise Maine, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. We arrived to record heat with cabin temperatures in the aircraft exceeding 110 degrees as we landed for the evening.

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While we’ll get no sympathy from the prairie crews who are more accustomed to occasional spring heat waves, it was a shock to our system since most of May thus far has been cool (to downright cold) and wet.

Our survey so far has proceeded in fits and starts, flying a day and sitting a few or many. An upper atmospheric blocking pattern known as an “omega block” (a common occurrence this time of year) locked a low pressure system in place over the north Atlantic which spun low ceilings, precipitation, high winds, and cold temperatures for over a week in early May, stalling us after only a couple days of flying. After conditions improved, we were able to complete Maine and hustle it to New Brunswick where a series of fronts kept us grounded several days. The same thing happened in Prince Edward Island a few days later; this time the culprit was a cut-off low pressure system east of Nova Scotia bringing high winds, low ceilings, rain, and low visibilities. Arriving in Halifax a few days later to a fluke day of record heat, we tied the plane up again for a few days to await a stalled low northeast of Newfoundland which was to bring high winds, heavy rain and accumulating snow for the Victoria Day weekend.

Overall habitat conditions across Maine and the Maritimes have improved substantially from the dry conditions of the past several years and lakes and wetlands are at full charge. Frequent precipitation along with snow and ice melt from higher elevations contributed to localized flooding, particularly in northern Maine and the St. John River Valley of New Brunswick which could have some negative impact on local duck and goose production. Overall, however, conditions for waterfowl production have improved across Maine and the Maritimes since last year. Now it’s just a waiting game for conditions suitable to ferry across the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Stephenville, Newfoundland where we’ll keep plugging.

Low level line in northern Maine on a rare clear day in May 2017.
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Localized flooding in the St. John River Valley near Fredericton, New Brunswick could have local effect on waterfowl production.
Localized flooding in the St. John River Valley near Fredericton, New Brunswick could have local effect on waterfowl production.  Photo Credit: USFWS

Another view of St. John River flooding near Fredericton, New Brunswick.
Another view of St. John River flooding near Fredericton, New Brunswick.  Photo Credit: USFWS

Cape Breton Highlands, Nova Scotia.
Cape Breton Highlands, Nova Scotia.  Photo Credit: USFWS

Oak Island in Mahone Bay southwest of Halifax, Nova Scotia…for you “Curse of Oak Island” fans.
Oak Island in Mahone Bay southwest of Halifax, Nova Scotia…for you “Curse of Oak Island” fans.  Photo Credit: USFWS

 

2016 Eastern Dakotas aerial crew upon completion of the survey at Devil's Lake, ND; Terry Liddick and Dave Fronczak

well along the way

Written by Terry Liddick

May 17, 2017 Eastern Dakotas

The Eastern Dakota crew is well along the way. We are through South Dakota, have finished all the transects around Jamestown, North Dakota, and we are now in Minot, North Dakota.

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We have been fortunate with the weather for the most part, and on the days where it hasn’t been so good, we have been able to work around it and continue moving. As with any undertaking this large, covering this much territory, flexibility is the key. It doesn’t always go according to plan, but as I always say, you have to have a plan in order to deviate. Some days we plan to fly east but have to fly west, some days we plan to fly north but end up having to fly south. Counting the ducks is the easy part; getting up at 4:45 a.m. every morning and figuring out where you are going to do it is the hard part. Complicating it a little further is trying to keep the ground crew in sync with us. Overall, we have been very fortunate to be getting along as well as we are. We had to take two days down to get the plane inspected, and we have had a few data recording issues with the recording equipment. We have worked our way around a few thunderstorms and changed the order of a couple of the groundings. Fog that was not visible during the morning weather briefing interrupted one morning’s flight but an impromptu change of direction lead to a successful day. Some days go like clockwork, and other days it’s all about improvise, adapt and overcome! At this point, we can say that North Dakota is looking much better than South Dakota. The snow that North Dakota had over the winter is evident in the condition of the wetlands. There are many more seasonal wetlands with water in them here than we observed in South Dakota. I wouldn’t call the conditions stellar; we’ve seen better over the years, but we have seen them worse as well. The Coteau in North Dakota looks good, very few dry wetlands unlike what we observed in South Dakota. The Drift Plain Region in North Dakota has more seasonal wetlands that have water as well. Very few of the wetlands are full to the banks, but at least they are not dry. Noteworthy seems to be the number of canvasbacks and pintails we are seeing this year. The past several years have been so dry, I believe they just overflew the Dakotas, but perhaps they found conditions to their liking this year when they arrived and decided to stay. We should have the survey of the Eastern Dakotas wrapped up in the next few days and I’ll report on the remaining portion of North Dakota then.

Near Mitchell, SD
Near Mitchell, SD

SW of Sioux Falls, SD
SW of Sioux Falls, SD

Missouri River Breaks
Missouri River Breaks

Near Leola, SD
Near Leola, SD

Near Wishek, ND
Near Wishek, ND

 

Alberta ground crew: Left to right: Elizabeth Beck (CWS), Garnet Raven (CWS), Michael Watmough (CWS), Joel Knoop (CWS-student), Kailyn Wiebe (CWS-student), Michelle Chupik (volunteer) and Absent: Jason Caswell (Alberta Environment and Parks) Photo credit: Michelle Chupik

Skies Cleared

Written by Garnet Raven

May 15, 2017 Alberta Ground Crew

The Alberta ground survey crew completed stratum 27 on May 12th and have now moved north to Wainwright. From here we will survey most of stratum 26 and bring the survey to a close in a few more days.

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We were delayed for a couple of days when high winds and rain grounded our air crew. Fortunately the skies cleared enough to get them back in the air today (May 15th) and our ground crew back to work.

Stratum 28 had average wetland conditions with decent duck numbers but we’ve seen an increase in moisture as we moved north through stratum 27. Today we surveyed the Coronation transect in the southern parklands of Alberta and found some very good wetland conditions. Duck numbers were high and it’s looking like conditions are only improving as we continue north into the parklands. We are expecting some excellent results for the last few days of our survey.

Our crew members have been seeing many raptors over the last few days including ferruginous hawks, Swainson’s hawks and red-tailed hawks. It really emphasized all the challenges a nesting duck faces in these landscapes. Foxes, coyotes and raptors threaten the very lives of the nesting hens, not to mention the many egg predators, including the skunks, crows and magpies. It’s not easy to be successful hatching a nest and it can be even more challenging to fledge that brood. However, when conditions are right the predators just can’t keep up and production can be impressive. It’s looking like it may be a close battle in the Alberta parklands this year. Will the predators get the upper hand? We will soon know.

Rolling hills and good wetland conditions on the Hanna transect. Photo credit: Kailyn Wiebe.
Rolling hills and good wetland conditions on the Hanna transect.  Photo credit: Kailyn Wiebe

A full stream on the Spondin transect. Photo credit: Kailyn Wiebe.
A full stream on the Spondin transect.  Photo credit: Kailyn Wiebe.

Pilot Jim Bredy and observer Joe Sands surveying the Coronation transect. Photo credit: Kailyn Wiebe.
Pilot Jim Bredy and observer Joe Sands surveying the Coronation transect.  Photo credit: Kailyn Wiebe

A pair of bufflehead and a drake canvasback on the Coronation air-ground transect. Photo credit: Elizabeth Beck
A pair of bufflehead and a drake canvasback on the Coronation air-ground transect. Photo credit: Elizabeth Beck

A drake bufflehead on the Coronation air-ground transect. Photo credit: Elizabeth Beck
A drake bufflehead on the Coronation air-ground transect. Photo credit: Elizabeth Beck.

Flying blue-wing teal spotted on the Coronation air-ground. Photo credit: Elizabeth Beck.
Flying blue-wing teal spotted on the Coronation air-ground.  Photo credit: Elizabeth Beck

A semi-permanent with several flushing ducks on the Coronation air-ground transect. Photo credit: Elizabeth Beck
A semi-permanent with several flushing ducks on the Coronation air-ground transect. Photo credit: Elizabeth Beck

 

Jim Bredy with Aviation Legend Max Ward 5-12-2017/USFWS

Legends

Written by Jim Bredy

May 14, 2017 Southern and Central Alberta

Joe and I are nearing the halfway point of our waterfowl surveys in southern and central Alberta. Although I have seen better upland and wetland conditions, the southern portion of the province is definitely wetter than last year. The wetland and upland habitat conditions improve dramatically the further north we go.

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Waterfowl numbers appear to be responding favorably to the improved conditions. We’ll know more accurate figures when we tally all of the Air Ground comparisons, and apply the visibility correction factors or VCFs. VCFs are the difference in what we see from the air, compared to what the ground crews are seeing. We are still in Edmonton, due to a slow moving weather system, and hope to resume our surveys tomorrow.

On another note….Although our primary purpose up here is to provide the waterfowling community with the best possible status of the breeding waterfowl and habitat status, it is, and always has been, much more than that for me. My time up here is one of the highlight “social events” of the year. I have forged some lifelong friendships with some truly incredible people, too numerous to name here. Recently I also had the tremendous opportunity and distinct honor to meet with a living aviation legend. I was humbled as I met one-on- one with a true aviation visionary and pioneer, Max Ward, for an hour at his home a few days ago.

Mr. Ward started his commercial aviation career with a de Havilland Fox Moth in 1948, and literally "opened up the bush" with the first single engine de Havilland "Otter" in service (production number 5) in the early 50's. He eventually went on to start up Wardair, which grew into an airline with impeccable service and amenities. I could easily spend a month with him, listening to his stories. On one such account, he spoke of early mapping surveys to the North Pole. Evidently the folks in Alaska and higher up in the US were a bit “concerned” as he got close to Russia. Yet he had already made arrangements with Russia for this venture of his. We also spoke about the lack of pilotage and dead-reckoning skills, in this era of electronic means of navigation. I asked him how he navigated in his early years. That question brought him back to the “glory years” of his career, as he then leaned back and smiled. He mentioned they didn’t always know where they were, but knew where they were going, and that they just “pointed the plane over there (as he gestured with his hand), and just went that- away”. He is 95 years young now. Of all his ventures, he STILL says that his days up in "the north country", were his favorite. I couldn't agree more!

When it comes time for me to “pull the plug” on this wonderful and incredible career, I will miss the north country. It will always hold a place near and dear to my heart. However, what I will truly miss will be the people. Yet, just as the waterfowl always return north, at some point, I also shall return. Because the “north country” with its people, is a magnet that is just way too strong to resist.

Max Ward, Aviation Legend of North America
Max Ward, Aviation Legend of North America

Pigeon Lake, Central Western part of Stratum 26
Pigeon Lake is located in the central western part of stratum 26, between Red Deer and Edmonton, Alberta. The ice held on it a bit longer this year, compared to recent years. (USFWS photo by Jim Bredy) Pigeon Lake, Central Western part of Stratum 26 Credit Jim Bredy usfws

Stratum 27 at AB/SK border near the town of Loverna.
This photo was taken at the east end of Stratum 27, between transects 3 and 5, along the AB/SK border. Note that the wetland basins are mostly full in this area. (USFWS photo by Jim Bredy) Stratum 27 at AB/SK border near the town of Loverna. Credit Jim Bredy usfws

 

air crew montana and western dakotas 2017 spangler left and anthony right. Photo credit: Rob Spangler/USFWS

Greetings from the western Dakotas and eastern Montana crew!

Written by Rob Spangler

May 12, 2017 Western Montana and Eastern Dakotas

We departed for this year’s survey a few days ago after waiting out another snowstorm in Colorado. Tony Roberts and Brad Rogers, our trusty ground crew, arrived in Pierre, South Dakota, ahead of us.

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I have a new observer this year, Ryan Anthony from Iowa and he is a keen waterfowl hunter and quick learner. This year we are flying the Kodiak K100 which is an efficient platform to conduct surveys from. Having the trusty PT-6 turbine engine on the front gives me greater peace of mind flying over canyons and rugged terrain at 150 feet above the ground.

After surveying our wetlands in the survey area, we are perfectly timed for starting this year with the ratio of waterfowl pairs to adult males near fifty-fifty. Ryan and I spent time in the air calibrating our sight distance using some known measured ground reference points to ensure we had a good visual on the 200 meter transect width. We flew wetlands and brushed up on counting and identifying waterfowl species.

Overall our survey area in South Dakota has been pretty dry so far this spring – dryer than last year, however recent rains helped to alleviate the conditions somewhat. Time will tell as we progress with the survey…. Stay tuned!

This is showing how we calibrate our eye for transect width. Rob Spangler/USFWS
This is showing how we calibrate our eye for transect width. Rob Spangler/USFWS

 

Timing is critical

Written by Phil Thorpe

May 11, 2017 Southern Saskatchewan

Timing is critical to getting a good count across the entire western survey area. We start when the ducks are spread out into their breeding territories and the Arctic nesting geese, cranes and the boreal nesting waterfowl species move out.

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To determine survey timing you have to get out on the ground and up in the air. We look at leaf-out, mallard pair-drake ratios, presence and social groupings of other later arriving waterfowl and even status of non-waterfowl species like coots and songbirds. Close coordination with the Canadian Wildlife Service field biologists is also key in making our decision on when to start the survey. If things aren’t right when we arrive, we wait until they are.

Starting too early can also create problems with the survey estimates and we look at northern pintails and lesser scaup for that timing. Pintails like shallow wetlands in the shortgrass and mixed-grass prairie. When the grasslands are wet the majority of the population will settle in to nest. They tend to spend a week or two in late April and early May before making that “overflight” decision. If we were to start the survey too early, we might double count pintails, meaning, they would be counted in southern Saskatchewan and possibly again in the Northwest Territories or Alaska. Last year, the grasslands were dry and a majority of pintails departed for the boreal forest and Alaska. You can see that overflight in the survey estimates for the Northwest Territories and Alaska and the decline in the southern Saskatchewan estimate compared with the pintail estimate from 2015, a wet year in the grasslands of southern Saskatchewan. Double counting is also a consideration for other ducks like lesser scaup, which breed in the prairies, but have larger breeding populations in the boreal forest.

With all of these variables considered, we started on May 4th and have completed five days of surveying. Conditions appear to be good for waterfowl in the southern Saskatchewan survey area. Fall precipitation was above normal over most of the agricultural areas of the province. Dry spring conditions existed, but excess water is still abundant on the landscape and many waterfowl appear to be taking advantage of it this year.

 

A Watched Pot Never Boils

Written by Walt Rhodes

May 10, 2017 Northern Saskatchewan, Northern Manitoba

Anxious to get back outside to finish up some evening yard work, I systematically check the rice pot to see if its water is boiling.

Nope. Nope. Nope. Finally, I reduce the heat and head back outside.

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Making rice is similar to deciding when to leave for my crew area in northern Saskatchewan and northern Manitoba. The ritual begins with checking continent-wide ice cover maps to see where the ice and snow cover line is relative to other years. Next, to provide a glimpse of my crew area, I check real-time weather cameras at local airports to see if there is any snow or ice. Lastly, I peek at the weather forecast issued by Environment and Climate Change Canada to see the long-term forecast. I do this on a near-daily basis beginning about the third week of April.

Sometimes I may call or send an email to contacts that I have in the north. They are as anxious for the ice to leave lakes so they can put their boats in the water for fishing season. Some of these folks are farmers too who keep a keen eye on the changing seasons. They will let me know, for example, if the snow geese have migrated north en masse -- a sure sign that I had better start packing my bags. They may also tell me how much snow they had during the winter or when they believe the ice will leave. My last bit of evidence comes from my colleague who surveys in southern Saskatchewan. He will report if he is seeing any swans or many “black-and- white ducks,” a euphemism for the host of divers that nest in the boreal forest. If he is seeing either or both then it is a late spring.

It appears that spring is arriving about on time. The region has experienced average precipitation since late summer, although not much has fallen in the last two months. Sunny days help dissipate the snow and to some extent ice cover but ice is really affected by spring rains and wind action.

Despite my habits, I typically leave the States about May 12th, give or take a day or two.

I bet too that in spite of my constant lid-lifting if I timed that rice pot it probably starts boiling about the same time every time after I turn the burner on, give or take a few seconds.

 

Alberta ground crew: Left to right: Elizabeth Beck (CWS), Garnet Raven (CWS), Michael Watmough (CWS), Joel Knoop (CWS-student), Kailyn Wiebe (CWS-student), Michelle Chupik (volunteer) and Absent: Jason Caswell (Alberta Environment and Parks) Photo credit: Michelle Chupik

Moving On Up

Written by Garnet Raven

May 8, 2017 Alberta Ground Crew

The Alberta ground survey crew hard at work surveying several strata. A stratum is aspecific geographic unit encompassing areas of similar waterfowl densities and isgenerally of a specific habitat type.

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In our southern Alberta crew area, there are four strata; Stratum 29 is the most southern stratum and includes the short-grass prairie, while Stratum 26 is the most northern stratum and includes the Alberta prairie-parklands. Strata 27 and 28 are intermediate between those two extremes.

We have been able to complete stratum 29 and should finish 28 tomorrow. We will then move on to Hanna and plan on surveying stratum 27 from there before moving north to survey stratum 26. Weather has cooperated, allowing us to survey each day since starting on May 6 th . Our pilot Jim Bredy and observer Joe Sands missed one day to weather but have been able to stay ahead of us and keep us busy.

Southern Alberta has received decent moisture over the last few months. It has resulted in an improvement of wetland conditions since last year. Although not good, we have been seeing more wetlands with water and the expected increase in duck numbers. Nevertheless, few seasonal wetlands were holding water. More permanent wetlands typically had good numbers of ducks due to it often being the only available water in the area.

On the bright side, things appear to be improving as we move north. More wetlands holding water were visible around Calgary. Hopefully that trend carries over to the Hanna area. There is definite reason for optimism over the next few days as we survey the northern prairies and move into the parklands.

The parklands have been relatively wet over the last few years and during our drive south the wetlands appeared largely full to the brim this year. Hopefully some of those ducks displaced by the dry conditions down south will show up in stratum 26.

A picture of a shoveler pair on the Pakowki transect in stratum 29. Photo credit: Michelle Chupik
A picture of a shoveler pair on the Pakowki transect in stratum 29.  Photo credit: Michelle Chupik

A group of Yellow-headed Blackbirds spotted along the Pakowki transect in stratum 29. Photo credit: Michelle Chupik.
A group of Yellow-headed Blackbirds spotted along the Pakowki transect in stratum 29. Photo credit: Michelle Chupik.

A picture of a young pronghorn antelope along the Manyberries transect. Photo credit: Kailyn Wiebe
A picture of a young pronghorn antelope along the Manyberries transect.  Photo credit: Kailyn Wiebe

A nice looking seasonal wetland with ducks on the Bow Island transect SW of Medicine Hat. Photo credit: Kailyn Wiebe
A nice looking seasonal wetland with ducks on the Bow Island transect SW of Medicine Hat.  Photo credit: Kailyn Wiebe

 

Maine and Atlantic Canada survey crew for 2017, Biologist/Pilot, Mark Koneff, and Biologist/Observer, Heidi Hanlon, in front of Quest Kodiak Amphibian N769  Photo Credit: USFWS

It’s a Typical Spring in the Northeast

Written by Mark Koneff

May 5, 2017 Maine and Atlantic Canada

While I can’t say it was an exceptionally harsh winter in Maine and the Canadian we had just enough cold that persisted, without dramatic warm ups, to result in good ice conditions for much of the winter. That kept me, my boys, and other ice fisherman happy.

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In Maine and the Maritimes, temperatures hovered around normal with slightly below average temperatures early and late in the winter and slightly above average in the middle. Snowfall was above average across Maine but a little below average in the Canadian Maritimes, especially eastern sections of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Substantial snow fell across Newfoundland this past winter and little sign of spring was evident in early April when I received my most recent report. Overall snow and ice was more persistent this spring than in 2016, and breakup was slow and controlled. An ice recon flight I made during the last week of April in northern Maine revealed significant ice on some larger lakes but all streams and wetlands were open and there was an open water fringe on the ice covered lakes suggesting time was right for a survey start the first week of May. Much of Maine and the Maritimes entered the winter under drought conditions or at least abnormally dry. A drying trend had persisted for the past several years, however, in Maine, ample winter and spring precipitation has pulled the region out of drought for the most part.

As far as spring goes its been pretty typical of Maine, lots of rain and some snow, cool, and muddy, with brief periods of crystal blue, as yet bug-free, skies that reinforce why you love the north. After 2 days of survey in southern and central Maine, its clear that the water has returned this year. Good numbers of black ducks, green-winged teal, and ring-necked ducks are being seen as well.

My biologist-observer this year, Heidi Hanlon, arrived in Bangor today, May 3. As always, we’ll spend the first couple of days reviewing safety checklists, safety gear, aircraft operations, crew communications and coordination, and data collection and processing steps. We’ll conduct several refresher and training flights to get Heidi reacquainted with the survey protocols and to hone her sight picture for waterfowl observation. This is Heidi’s second year as an observer on the survey, however, her tour last year was cut short when I suffered an injury that required we bring in a replacement crew.

Heidi is from Cape May, New Jersey. She is the Wildlife Biologist at Cape May and Supawna Meadows National Wildlife Refuges. She has worked with the US Fish and Wildlife Service for 17 years. At the refuges, Heidi mostly works with shorebirds, waterfowl, bats, horseshoe crabs, and salamanders, though her passion is small mammals. She also spends a great deal of time in the coastal marshes studying nekton (aquatic invertebrates) and vegetation and is working on Hurricane Sandy resiliency projects at both refuges to enable the marshes to withstand future storms and sea level rise. I’m glad she’s been able to return for this year’s survey and looking forward to a safe and productive month.

As of late April many larger Maine lakes are still locked in ice, but its receding fast.
As of late April many larger Maine lakes are still locked in ice, but its receding fast.  Photo Credit: USFWS

Most ice covered lakes showing open water fringes in late April which allow waterfowl to begin to settle onto breeding territories.
Most ice covered lakes showing open water fringes in late April which allow waterfowl to begin to settle onto breeding territories.  Photo Credit: USFWS

Ponds, wetlands, and streams, as well as many shallow lakes, are ice free across Maine as of as the survey starts on May 4.
Ponds, wetlands, and streams, as well as many shallow lakes, are ice free across Maine as of as the survey starts on May 4.  Photo Credit: USFWS

Mt. Washington, NH still snow covered in early May.
Mt. Washington, NH still snow covered in early May.  Photo Credit: USFWS

 

Departing home base

Written by Jim Bredy

May 2, 2017 Southern and Central Alberta

I departed for the crew area from my current home base of Albuquerque, NM on April 26th. This is my 30th season of conducting aerial surveys in Canada. It was a smooth, mostly uneventful flight until…

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...between Riverton and Cody, WY, I noticed my left engine fuel pressure gauge slowly decreasing with the red low fuel pressure warning light blinking. “OH NO,” I initially thought. “Well, it kind of looks like my left engine fuel pump is failing.” I clicked on the left engine standby boost pump and prepared for an engine shutdown. I then went back to the old adage that every instructor has mentioned since the beginning of aviation time, that when an emergency happens, to never forget to always just “FLY THE PLANE!” I continued to troubleshoot and figured out that it was a faulty indicator gauge, and not the engine fuel pump itself. I landed at the nearest maintenance facility in Cody, WY where I had the issue (an apparent loose wire) fixed. I would have been stuck in Cody anyway for a few days, due to an untimely slow-moving spring storm with a lot of wintry precipitation. However, being “stuck” in Cody is a bit of a misnomer, because it is never a bad thing to have a Cody layover.

After the storm broke, I continued north to Calgary on April 29 with a “short” three and a half hour flight. My initial impression of the habitat in SW Alberta, was encouraging. This year, as I crossed over the Milk River Ridge south of Lethbridge, ALL of the visible basins on the ridge had some moisture in them! The surrounding habitat between Lethbridge and Calgary area was also a LOT greener, with (what appeared to be) more water in the wetland basins than last year. The Agriculture Canada reports all indicated that the summer-winter 2016-2017 period was wetter than the 2015-2016 season. A series of spring storms has continued through the area the last part of April, helping recharge last year’s dry basins.

The other part of the aerial crew, Joe Sands, arrived the evening of May 1st. I was fortunate to draw Joe as the crew member for the fourth year in a row. He is a Ph.D. waterfowl biologist with the Service. What Ph.D. really stands for, in Joe’s case, is “Doctor of Duck Philosophy”. That is the BEST type of crew member to have. Having a passion for waterfowl helps to take the edge off of some of the long work days.

We conducted a pre-survey aerial reconnaissance between Lethbridge and Medicine Hat on May 2nd. Although I have seen this area a lot wetter and greener, there appeared to be many more wetland basins with moisture in them than last year. We have also heard some encouraging words about good wetland conditions further north. The timing of waterfowl nesting appears to be about right for a survey start on Friday, May 5th. Stand by for more news as the survey progresses!

Milk River Ridge, south of Lethbridge, Alberta. April 29, 2017 Note the good wetland and habitat conditions on the Milk River Ridge, as I crossed into Canada on April 29, 2017. The Milk River Ridge is located south of Lethbridge, Alberta, along the Montana border, in the SW part of Stratum 29.
Photo Credit: Jim Bredy, USFWS.
Milk River Ridge, south of Lethbridge, Alberta. April 29, 2017  Photo Credit: Jim Bredy, USFWS

 

making preparations

Written by Sarah Yates

April 28, 2017 Southern Manitoba-Southeastern Saskatchewan

I’ve been watching the weather, corresponding with my Canadian friends, and making preparations for the Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey for a few weeks now.

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It looks like a possible start next week if all goes as planned. My contacts are telling me there is a lot of water in southern Manitoba and southeastern Saskatchewan this year. Most of the larger waterbodies are full beyond their boundaries, rivers have seen flooding, and most temporary-seasonal prairie pot holes are full to the brim. The abundance of water should disperse the birds throughout the survey area, making counting a little easier from the air. Hopefully water levels stabilize over the next few weeks and the birds find plenty of suitable nesting and brooding habitat.

 

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Last Updated: June 21, 2017