Aerial & Ground Crew Blog

2018

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!

Steve Olson (left) and Brian Lubinski (right) in High Level, AB, on May 19, 2018 after their third consecutive day of surveying.

Stability of the North

Written by Steve Olson

Northern Alberta, Eastern British Columbia, and Northwest Territory

Over the last four weeks, we canvased an area of the north the size of Texas and California combined. Beginning near Slave Lake, Alberta, we flew our way north. Our survey transects are oriented horizontally on a map, so we cover a lot of ground for every slight increase vertically (north). This method has proven effective in keeping up with the proverbial wave of migrating waterfowl.

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The possibility that we may arrive at a given latitude too early can increase with larger northward movements of our survey. The only times we don’t fly are during poor weather or if we have a feeling that we are too early for any given latitude. The feeling of being too early can be qualified by too many large groups of apparently still-migrating waterfowl, few single males (the hen has not started nesting), and too much unavailable breeding habitat (bodies of water still locked up in ice).

Bodies of water in our area were full, which is typical in the north. In fact, after five years of flying the exact same survey there are only two examples of local water levels changing on an annual basis. Water levels in the Peace-Athabasca and Mackenzie River Deltas are governed by draining vast areas, far from the terminus. Therefore, the health of an area as a whole can sometimes be predicted by the health of the terminus, or the river deltas.

This year’s overall conditions were good, and about normal. We experienced exceptional habitat conditions in both deltas, signaling a healthy landscape, concurrent with our observations as a whole. The landscape rarely changes on a scale large enough to make a difference. It is quite stable, and the North’s permafrost and vastness ensures stability as a whole.

Given good to excellent habitat, we also experienced normal quantities and distribution of waterfowl. We arrived a few days later than normal and over the last four weeks, progressed at a rate that we felt appropriate for migrating waterfowl.

 

2018 southern Saskatchewan survey crew. Photo Credit:Stephen Chandler, USFWS

Good Habitat Conditions Despite Warm and Dry Weather

Written by Phil Thorpe

Southern Saskatchewan

Another survey safely and successfully completed. Despite the low precipitation across the province over the previous 10 months, large parts of the survey area remain in good shape for waterfowl nesting and brood rearing.

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This is in large part because of the long-term wet cycle the province has been in for the last 10 years or so. We observed wetlands flooded out of their margins, flooded farms, and ongoing drainage from smaller water bodies into larger ones, thus flooding the larger ones.

I’d expect that even with the below average precipitation, many areas in the province, like the Missouri Coteau, the parklands, and the southwestern and northwestern grasslands will still have enough good quality habitat to provide good recruitment from the southern Saskatchewan survey area. However, any rain to help replenish low water levels in wetlands and help stimulate growth of cover for nesting waterfowl would certainly help. Drought is part of the prairie life-cycle and is needed for wetland productivity, we can only hope that if the drought has arrived, it doesn’t last as long as the wet cycle lasted!

American green-winged teal nest. Photo Credit:Stephen Chandler, USFWS
American green-winged teal nest. Photo Credit:Stephen Chandler, USFWS

Despite below average precipitation, water levels remain high in the northeast parklands. Photo Credit: P. Thorpe, USFWS
Despite below average precipitation, water levels remain high in the northeast parklands. Photo Credit: P. Thorpe, USFWS

Parkland and boreal transition areas have the habitat for good waterfowl recruitment to occur. Photo Credit: P. Thorpe, USFWS
Parkland and boreal transition areas have the habitat for good waterfowl recruitment to occur. Photo Credit: P. Thorpe, USFWS

Varied conditions were seen across the province with the driest conditions observed in the southern grasslands. Photo Credit: P. Thorpe, USFWS
Varied conditions were seen across the province with the driest conditions observed in the southern grasslands. Photo Credit: P. Thorpe, USFWS

Good conditions remain in many parts of the Province. Photo Credit: P. Thorpe, USFWS
Good conditions remain in many parts of the Province. Photo Credit: P. Thorpe, USFWS

 

2018 SC Alberta BPOP Survey Crew. Joe Sands to the left and Jim Bredy Photo Credit: USFWS

Survey Wrap Up Report

Written by Jim Bredy

Southern and Central Alberta

We wrapped up the survey a few days before the end of May. In our last report, we reported overall good to excellent conditions between the Montana Border and Edmonton Alberta.

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As we progressed further to the north and west into the Central Alberta portion of the survey area (strata 75 and 76), the wetland and upland habitat conditions deteriorated, from the better conditions to the south. In this area, many of the seasonal wetland basins had depressed water levels, with many of the temporary or “seasonal” basins dry. The heavily farmed agricultural areas of the central Peace Region, between Grande Prairie and Peace River, remain in poor condition for nesting waterfowl, due to the tilled wetland basins with little to no habitat around them. The unseasonably Spring high temperatures, at times in upper 80s, were not helping the seasonal wetland basins by drying the water in them quicker, than if the temperatures were in the more normal 50 to 70 degree range.

We feel the overall good to excellent habitat conditions in the southern portions of the survey area, will help a bit to offset the fair to poor conditions in the Peace Region. We are thus optimistic for good waterfowl production in the southern portion of the survey area between Edmonton and the Montana border (strata 26-29). Due to the overall lesser quality of wetland and upland habitats, we do not expect increased waterfowl production from 2017, in the areas located between Edmonton, Cold Lake, Slave Lake, Grande Prairie and Peace River (strata 75 and 76).

This was my last duck survey as a FWS employee, with retirement fast approaching at the end of June. Before I left Alberta, I received a tour of the Edmonton Flight Information Centre, and the Edmonton Air Route Traffic Control facility. Between the two of them, they control and “brief” pilots operating in the largest block of free airspace in the world. I offered my hand, and shook the hands belonging to many voices that had assisted me over portions of the last four decades. I then personally asked those fine folks to continue to look after my colleagues operating in their airspace. There is a beginning and an end to just about everything. It has been a great ride, but it is time to go. After flying these surveys for portions of four decades, I am thus signing off. I wish you all fun and safe journeys afield. Take care….until we meet again!

Near Peace River, Alberta, the good 2017 Spring wetland conditions have deteriorated this Spring of 2018. Note the depressed water levels in this wetland complex. (USFWS photo by Jim Bredy)
Near Peace River, Alberta, the good 2017 Spring wetland conditions have deteriorated this Spring of 2018. Note the depressed water levels in this wetland complex. (USFWS photo by Jim Bredy)

Stratum 76. The dark spots in the earth were once fertile wetland basins. Intense agricultural practices are not conducive to healthy waterfowl production. (USF&WS photo by Jim Bredy)
Stratum 76. The dark spots in the earth were once fertile wetland basins. Intense agricultural practices are not conducive to healthy waterfowl production. (USF&WS photo by Jim Bredy)

The larger wetland complexes in Stratum 76 still hold water in them, but the water levels are lower than last year at this time. (USFWS photo by Jim Bredy)
The larger wetland complexes in Stratum 76 still hold water in them, but the water levels are lower than last year at this time. (USFWS photo by Jim Bredy)

This large wetland complex in Stratum 76, south of Grande Prairie, Alberta has depressed water levels, compared to this time last year. (USFWS photo by Jim Bredy)
This large wetland complex in Stratum 76, south of Grande Prairie, Alberta has depressed water levels, compared to this time last year.(USFWS photo by Jim Bredy)

Garnet Raven (L) from the Canadian Wildlife Service, is a dedicated waterfowl biologist who has "carried the torch" from his predecessors, and is working hard to advance the importance of waterfowl in North America! Jim Bredy (R) from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, has been flying waterfowl surveys in Canada for portions of four decades. (USFWS photo by Jim Bredy)
Garnet Raven (L) from the Canadian Wildlife Service, is a dedicated waterfowl biologist who has carried the torch from his predecessors, and is working hard to advance the importance of waterfowl in North America! Jim Bredy (R) from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, has been flying waterfowl surveys in Canada for portions of four decades. (USF&WS photo by Jim Bredy)

I first met Dave Carpenter in Dawson Creek, British Columbia in the early 1990's. The folks at the Edmonton Flight information Centre "brief" pilots regarding flight information over an immense expanse of Canadian airspace. (USFWS photo by Jim Bredy)
I first met Dave Carpenter in Dawson Creek, British Columbia in the early 1990's. The folks at the Edmonton Flight information Centre brief pilots regarding flight information over an immense expanse of Canadian airspace. (USF&WS photo by Jim Bredy)

"Guardians Of The North". This gentleman is part of a team at the "North Sector" at the Edmonton Air Route Traffic Control Centre, controlling the largest block of "free" airspace in the world! These folks have helped to keep me alive for portions of four decades! (USFWS photo by Jim Bredy)
Guardians Of The North. This gentleman is part of a team at the North Sector at the Edmonton Air Route Traffic Control Centre, controlling the largest block of free airspace in the world! These folks have helped to keep me alive for portions of four decades! (USF&WS photo by Jim Bredy)

 

USFWS pilot-biologist Jim Wortham and Jared Laing USFWS)

A New Perspective

Written by Jared Laing

Western Ontario and Northern Quebec

When I was asked if I wanted to participate in the May Waterfowl Breeding Population Survey in Canada I was excited to say the least. I have been flying since I was a child, and have a passion for being in the air, and for the last nine years have participated in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Departments Mid-winter Waterfowl Survey as the East Texas waterfowl biologist, but I honestly never dreamed I’d get to participate in the BPOP survey!

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This is THE waterfowl survey and it plays a pivotal role in establishing waterfowl regulations for Canada, US, and Mexico, and here I am getting to assist! After gracious support for participation in the survey from my division director, state waterfowl biologist, and my boss (thanks to all!) I had to then get permission from my real boss (my wife), which, understandably, is a difficult ask. “Honey, I’d like to participate in this survey, with no extra pay, and I’ll be gone up to a month, can I go?” Leaving her to juggle her job, the kids (who weren’t thrilled I was going to be gone) at the end of the school year, and the rigors of life, as well as the daily tasks of my real job to fit this in is no small request. My wife graciously agreed, (thanks to her as well!) so here I am.

We had some rain delays on the Ontario routes, but once that lifted we were able to fly uninterrupted to get those transects done. Habitat here is mostly boreal forest along our transects, which are dotted with hundreds of glacial lakes, bogs, muskegs, beaver ponds, rivers and creeks. It’s a GRAND, BIG, and beautiful landscape from the air, but being familiar with this habitat from my time in Alaska, I know it’s a foreboding landscape on the ground. The driving forces of disturbance here are landscape level fires hundreds of thousands of acres in size, snow pack, and drought. All of which play a pivotal role in maintaining this as key breeding grounds for many species of waterfowl and other species too.

In discussions with Jim, habitat conditions on most of the survey routes are spotty with most being average and some below average. Very little snow pack this year leads to little runoff and leaves beaver ponds, fringe marshes and muskegs lower than normal. These intermittent/ephemeral wetland habitat types are abundant on the majority of the survey routes in Ontario, especially the northern portions of Stratum 50. There was good beaver activity throughout the region, which creates significant nesting habitat across the region, as they take advantage of any precipitation and runoff and will make new dams to capture it. The more southern portions of the routes tend to have more perennial water and seemed more normal and less spotty, even though water levels were visibly lower than normal.

All in all it’s been a great experience so far and we’re just about halfway through. Were headed to northern Quebec and Labrador next, just waiting on the ice and snow to finally let go of the region so we can survey birds at optimal timing for accurate counts.

Southern Stratum 50, low lake levels were common. Southern Stratum 50, low lake levels were common. USFWS

Southern Stratum 50, low lake level, but lots of “black and white” waterfowl were still using this area. Southern Stratum 50, low lake level, but lots of “black and white” waterfowl were still using this area. USFWS

This is a full beaver pond in the western portion of Stratum 50. There was excellent beaver activity throughout the survey area, though only about 1/3 of the beaver ponds were full, and quality was spotty across the stratum USFWS This is a full beaver pond in the western portion of Stratum 50. There was excellent beaver activity throughout the survey area, though only about 1/3 of the beaver ponds were full, and quality was spotty across the stratum. USFWS

Central and eastern Stratum 50 beaver ponds were more frequently like this. Many were low and in need of water to maximize habitat availability, even though there was still frequent use of these areas by waterfowl, especially the elusive black duck, which likes to hide in nooks and crannies of these types of wetlands. Central and eastern Stratum 50 beaver ponds were more frequently like this.  Many were low and in need of water to maximize habitat availability, even though there was still frequent use of these areas by waterfowl, especially the elusive black duck, which likes to hide in nooks and crannies of these types of wetlands. USFWS

Our job would be much easier if all waterfowl stood out like this pair of tundra swans in the northern portion of stratum 50. Our job would be much easier if all waterfowl stood out like this pair of tundra swans in the northern portion of stratum 50. USFWS

 

USFWS pilot-biologist Walt Rhodes (L) and observer James Whitaker from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries seek some shade in Prince Albert, SK, while waiting to get fuel. (photo by Walt Rhodes, USFWS)

That’s A Wrap

written By Walt Rhodes


Northern Saskatchewan and Northern Manitoba

One northern boreal crew area finished up under favorable conditions. Continuing to eat my way in pickerel across the crew area, we left Stony Rapids, Saskatchewan, our northern terminus, on May 28th and arrived in Flin Flon, Manitoba, for two days. Good survey weather (overcast skies with occasional rain showers) ensued and allowed us to complete the survey in Thompson, Manitoba on May 31st.

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Snow was in the forecast in two days so we hustled out of town on June 1st, skirting around the north side of a large weather system tracking the border, and ducked in behind it at Edmonton, AB. My observer jumped on a commercial flight for home the following morning and I essentially followed his flight out in my plane, headed to Boise to drop off the plane for an inspection.

Manitoba habitats looked good again this spring. Wetlands were adequately charged and breeding pairs were sprinkled across the landscape. There was no ice present, including on even the largest water bodies that we cross. The last two years have seen some welcome surface water compared to previous years.

All in all, it was a smooth 2018 survey over good habitat. We were greeted with some forest fires early on that required some pre-planning each morning but overall the weather cooperated, with only one weather day and two mandatory crew rest days. The ice melted quickly and spring progressed as normal, with maybe only very slightly behind in Manitoba. It should be a good waterfowl production year across northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Wetlands along one of the last transects in northern Manitoba were adequately charged. (photo by Walt Rhodes, USFWS) Wetlands along one of the last transects in northern Manitoba were adequately charged. (photo by Walt Rhodes, USFWS)

Prime 2018 waterfowl breeding habitats along the SK/MB border. (photo by Walt Rhodes, USFWS) Prime 2018 waterfowl breeding habitats along the SK/MB border. (photo by Walt Rhodes, 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

Tale of Two Seasons

Written by Mark Koneff

Maine and Atlantic Canada

Well we’ve finished our survey in Newfoundland and Labrador. Conditions in Newfoundland were generally good for production. There was a rather larger snow storm in the Gander area during our stay that may have caused some nest abandonment but other than that production should be good.

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Our survey area as a whole this year, however, illustrated one of the more challenging and vexing aspects of large-scale surveys of migratory species like waterfowl. That challenge is to time survey efforts during the short laying and incubation periods such that locally breeding birds are largely sedentary on territories and northern migrants have passed through the survey unit. This ensures a good count of local breeders and avoids possibly encountering and counting migrating birds again in more northern survey units. Unfortunately this spring we were unable to meet both those objectives since southern strata experienced a normal to early spring forcing us to initiate surveys there, while northern areas, especially Labrador, remained locked in snow and ice. We are certain that elevated counts and a larger proportion of birds in large groups on PEI reflects migrants awaiting improved conditions in Labrador or Quebec. Arriving in Labrador we found the eastern portion of the unit still in winter, while portions of central and western Labrador exhibited substantial open water and high bird numbers. Its likely that some of the increase in counts in some species like scaup and scoters reflect the presence of birds still in migration as well as a greater proportion of birds encountered in pre-breeding groups instead of territorial pairs. While this survey timing challenge is ever present, every so often the perfect storm of conditions occurs where the effect is more pronounced. Such was the case in the far eastern portion of the Eastern Survey Area this spring. It is by far the most extreme circumstance I’ve experienced in my 20 some years flying the survey. Thankfully, such extreme events are rare in the 70+ year time series, and we have good reason to trust the long-term patterns of population change we observe from this monitoring program which is so critical to management of North American waterfowl.

Dramatic scenery in and around Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland, May 2018
Dramatic scenery in and around Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland, May 2018 Photo Credit: USFWS

Western Brook Pond landlocked fjord, Newfoundland, May 2018
Western Brook Pond landlocked fjord, Newfoundland, May 2018 Photo Credit: USFWS

Eastern Labrador still in the grips of winter in late May, May 2018
Eastern Labrador still in the grips of winter in late May,  May 2018 Photo Credit: USFWS

Recent ice out in central Labrador, May 2018
Recent ice out in central Labrador, May 2018 Photo Credit: USFWS

Areas near Wabush were wide open and large numbers of ducks and geese were present, May 2018
Areas near Wabush were wide open and large numbers of ducks and geese were present, May 2018 Photo Credit: USFWS

 

Seems like “Normal”

Written by Brad Shults

Alaska and Yukon Territory

This year we started the annual survey in Cordova on May 15 under a sunny sky--something the Northern Gulf of Alaska coast is not famous for, but ideal conditions for flying from Anchorage via the Copper River Valley to reach Cordova.

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On the Copper River Delta we observed abundant dusky Canada goose pairs and assorted dabblers similar to previous years along with the ever present bald eagles. It appeared to be a “normal” year. Normal phenology, water levels, and species composition.

From Cordova we moved to Interior Alaska for the next several days to survey several important wetland habitats including Minto Flats State Wildlife Refuge and the Yukon Flats, Tetlin, and Koyukuk/Nowitna National Wildlife Refuges. Our first impression was that the average winter snowfall totals had finally resulted in more abundant water in all the interior breeding areas. Rivers were beyond their banks and lakes and ponds were full. Annual snowfall in the Interior Alaska has been well below normal within the last decade resulting in a much dryer spring/summer landscape.

In addition, above average winter and spring temperatures resulted in early breakups and leaf-outs for the last several years. Not so this year, things looked normal and the traditional survey schedule seemed to be timed perfectly. Observations of breeding waterfowl in these areas also appeared normal with the only exception being that our early impression was that we were observing more pintails than in the previous few years. However, this impression is yet to be tested with the actual data.

After a tour through the Innoko National Wildlife Refuge, we surveyed south to King Salmon and the Alaska Peninsula wetlands including the salmon rich drainages of Bristol Bay before proceeding here to Bethel and the well-known Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta (YKD). We arrived here on the afternoon of May 27th and were greeted by abundant snow showers and a blistering temperature of 39F. Ahh!, walking the boardwalks during the Bering Sea summer days! After surveying half of our YKD transects, everything appears normal. Although the YKD never lacks abundant water, river levels are high and interior wetlands full.

From here we’ll move North to the Seward Peninsula and Kotzebue Sound. We’re expecting some lingering ice cover in these northern areas because of a cooler, but “normal” start to summer across the state. In contrast, by the time we reach Fairbanks early next week for our final survey days in Old Crow Flats, Yukon and the south side of the Alaska Range, temperatures are expected to reach the mid 70s. A welcome change for this survey crew!

All indications are that 2018 appears to be closer to the long-term normal with respect to phenology than in recent years. However, with only impressions and no summarized survey data it is hard to know what this return to normal means for annual waterfowl species composition and production this year.

Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Wildlife Refuge taken on May 30. Deb Groves/USFWS.

Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Wildlife Refuge taken on may 30. Deb Groves/USFWS..

Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Wildlife Refuge taken on May 30. Deb Groves/USFWS.

Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Wildlife Refuge taken on May 30. Deb Groves/USFWS..

Transects loaded in the Foreflight program on the iPad and the panel in our C-206 Amphib N721NR. Deb Groves/USFWS.

transects loaded in the Foreflight program on the iPad and the panel in our C-206 Amphib N721NR Deb Groves/USFWS..

 

Biologist/Pilot Steve Earsom (L) and Observer Garrett Wilkerson waiting on better weather in Ottawa, Ontario, 10 May 2018. Photo: Steve Earsom (USFWS)

Summary of SE Ontario and SW Quebec

Written by Steve Earsom

Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec

My observer, Garrett Wilkerson, and I finished our last twenty segments a few days ago, and just like that, another survey is behind us. Garrett did a great job in his first year as a May survey observer, asking good questions and, more importantly, challenging the answers I gave him if he had a different viewpoint. I suspect he’ll be back for a few more waterfowl surveys.

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The habitat was challenging to grade this year. It was drier than I can remember seeing it in the eight years I’ve flown this crew area, and yet there was still plenty of water on the landscape. The agricultural areas are always difficult to judge, but in most cases there was still water in the bottoms of many drainage ditches. Beaver dams still held water, and river flows remained abundant. Areas that were judged as only “fair” were due either to winter precipitation being less than normal or in the case of Quebec southeast of James Bay, a late thaw.

As I mentioned in my last flight log, we were keeping a somewhat slower pace than normal, hoping to allow the higher latitude and elevation area near Chibougamau to green up. However, even after taking a non-mandatory rest day and leaving those problem transects to the very last day, we still found Lake Mistassini and many other water bodies to be frozen solid, and the waterfowl to be unsettled. We saw singles, pairs and groups of all three scoter species, which is unusual, and not as many singles and pairs of black ducks as we might have expected. Overall, however, the habitat once again appears to support a healthy population of waterfowl in our crew area.

 

Biologist/Pilot Steve Earsom (L) and Observer Garrett Wilkerson waiting on better weather in Ottawa, Ontario, 10 May 2018. Photo: Steve Earsom (USFWS)

Yellow Flag Surveying

Written by Steve Earsom

Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec

Racing fans know the yellow flag means caution, and that drivers have to slow down to a predetermined speed until some item is resolved. That’s the case for us this year.

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We started the survey in southern Ontario on May 9th, about the same time as last year. However, ice is still widespread on lakes southeast of the James Bay near Chibougamau, which is the last area we fly. Thus, we have been surveying a few segments less per day than what we might normally, trying to allow that area to thaw. The challenge is that the southern and eastern parts of our crew area are phenologically ready and, ironically, we have had excellent weather, so nothing is slowing us down in the region between Ottawa and Quebec City east to the Maine border.

So far the habitat is mostly good, with some areas fair or excellent. Bleached rocks are visible around the rim of some lakes, and beaver ponds are often not full. However, there is still plenty of water in areas we have surveyed to date. Hopefully the sun will continue to shine and we can get back to surveying under the green flag.

 

montana finished and survey complete

written BY rob spangler


Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana

The weather has been great and we have been flying every day except for mandatory rest days off. Over the past week, we have covered most of eastern Montana and conditions are much improved over last year.

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Although to the north in Saskatchewan where Phil is flying it is very dry, the opposite is the case in Montana. With all of the now and spring precipitation wetlands have increased dramatically both in quality and quantity.

The driest areas in Montana can be found in the northeastern portion of the state with some fair, but mostly good habitat conditions. Although the data has yet to be analyzed, the distribution and abundance of waterfowl appears to be an improvement over last year. We can expect good to excellent production out of Montana this year!

Habitat conditions near Billings. Rob Spangler/USFWS.

Habitat conditions near Billings, MT. Rob Spangler/USFWS.

Expect great waterfowl production out of Montana this year. Rob Spangler/USFWS.

Another view from the sky over the Billings area. Rob Spangler/USFWS.

A view from the sky southwest of Havre, MT. Ryan Anthony/USFWS.

A view from the sky southwest of Havre, MT. Ryan Anthony/USFWS..

 

Newfoundland Notes from an Aerial Observer

written BY Heidi Hanlon


Maine and Atlantic Canada

Pilot Mark Koneff and I are surveying Newfoundland now. It has quite the varied habitat, with string bogs, small wetlands, large lakes, fjords, forested mountains and rocky tundra.

We finished surveying southern Newfoundland. The higher elevations still had snow cover and a few wetlands were still frozen but the majority of wetlands were open. While most of Canada is having record highs and some forest fires right now, we had snow the past two mornings in Stephenville, which is on the southwest corner of Newfoundland.

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Other parts of interior Newfoundland, such as Gander, had over 14 inches of snow on May 23, setting a record and preventing any hope of surveying. As expected, waterfowl compositions are changing as we continue moving north from Maine. We are seeing more scaup, ring-necked ducks, and black scoter, but fewer mallards and wood ducks. We are also seeing a few more moose and a lot of caribou.

This is my third year conducting aerial waterfowl surveys. Aerial surveys are vastly different than ground surveys. While some people may think it is easy to sit in a plane and count ducks, it is actually quite challenging as we cover an area at 100 mph, 150-200 feet above ground, and we are seeing the birds from a different vantage point.

The first challenge is to see if an object in the water is a bird, stone or log. If it is flying, is it a flicker, kingfisher or green-wing teal? Once identified as waterfowl, more questions need to be answered, such as how many of them are there, what is the ratio of males and females, and of course, what species is it?

All of these questions must be answered in 3-5 seconds, and I’m only an observer. The pilot is doing all of this while watching out for hazards, flying the plane and navigating the terrain.

I am grateful to be able to contribute to these surveys and think about the biologists that surveyed this same area decades ago. We will continue on to Labrador next, once the snow stops falling and the clouds lift!

A view of the Bay of Fundy. Photo by Mark Koneff/USFWS

A view of the Bay of Fundy/USFWS.

Video taken while surveying in Newfoundland. Video by Mark Koneff/USFWS.

Video of surveying in Newfoundland. Video by Mark Koneff/USFWS.

 

Northwest of Aberdeen, SD. Photo by Terry Liddick/USFWS.

A Tale of Two Dakotas

written By Terry Liddick


Eastern Dakotas

Well, we are nearly midway through the eastern Dakotas waterfowl breeding population and habitat survey and things are starting to change a bit. We flew the first day out of Mitchell, South Dakota, on May 6th and that took us as far south as any of the transects in the entire survey are flown, nearly to the Nebraska border. That part is typically pretty dry and it was again, relatively speaking, this year.

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That said, the late season rain last year as well as the above normal snow over the winter, had the country around Parkston and Lake Andes, SD, looking about as good as I have ever seen it and certainly better than it has in the past several years. That trend continued as we moved north through South Dakota until we got to the Aberdeen area and there things began to dry out a bit.

Waterfowl numbers for all species appear to be up in South Dakota as well as seasonal wetlands. By our count at this point, wetlands are up 690 over last year as observed from the right side of the plane within the 1/8-mile transect on that side and the duck numbers match. I guess if you just add water they will come!

There are a total of 10 transects in the South Dakota portion of the eastern Dakotas crew’s area. The weather this far has been unseasonably warm and we have not encountered any adverse weather that has slowed the advance of the survey. A few overnight stray thundershowers and calm winds have allowed us to proceed nicely through South Dakota.

We arrived in Jamestown, North Dakota, yesterday, May 10th. North Dakota, so far, has become a different story that South Dakota. The first few transects in North Dakota are showing a drying trend, matching what we observed since getting north of Aberdeen. This region of North Dakota did not see the amount of snowfall that most of South Dakota did, and it is evident as we crisscross the state between the Minnesota border and the Missouri River.

For safety reasons, we are mandated to take one day off every seven days or two in 14. So with fair skies predicted for the next week, we are down today after eight consecutive days of flying. That is always welcomed but unfortunately the skies are clear. I prefer when a mandatory down day coincides with an inclement weather day, but not the case.

So we will enjoy a day off of flying and catch up on data, paperwork and other administrative tasks and get ready to resume again tomorrow.

Stay tuned!

Unlike in South Dakota, things were dry in North Dakota when the survey crew came through. Photo by Terry Liddick/USFWS

Unlike in South Dakota, things were dry in North Dakota when the survey crew came through. Photo by Terry Liddick/USFWS Unlike in South Dakota, things are dry in North Dakota.

North of Jamestown, ND. Photo by Terry Liddick/USFWS North of Jamestown, ND.

 

The public weather forecast.

The Heat Is On

written By Walt Rhodes


Northern Saskatchewan and Northern Manitoba

Growing up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland I had some wonderful memories of summer. Cut-off blue jeans, bare feet, sweet corn, and, of course, steamed crabs, just to name a few. But for some reason I don’t really recall the heat and humidity.

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I remember hearing a term batted around by adults like the dog-days of summer, but I never heard heat index or humidex as the former is called in Canada. Heat just didn’t seem like an issue, and the only time I really experience it now as an adult is when I am on the shadeless prairies of Saskatchewan banding waterfowl during August.

During the May survey we usually have very pleasant temperatures, with only the occasional odd snowstorm. It is the opposite so far in 2018.

We just finished four hours of flying in a 100-degree F cockpit. The air was heavy in Fort McMurray, Alberta, when we climbed out. This town was -12 degrees F as recently as six weeks ago and should be only about 56 degrees F now. Heat warnings and air quality alerts are posted on the public weather forecast.

Besides the discomfort in the cockpit what this means is the boreal forest and its waterfowl habitat is drying out very quickly and making it ripe for forest fires. So far there are only a few fires around that are producing a lot of smoke but nothing large has erupted yet. Hopefully, the devastation to Fort McMurray in 2016 has people in the bush more careful, but under these conditions things can get out of hand very quickly. There’s a sense everyone is merely holding their breath.

We are a little more than halfway finished and waterfowl numbers seem similar to last year. Our top five species in no particular order remain mallards, scaup, ringed-neck ducks, mergansers (all species combined), and buffleheads.

The forecast seems to indicate some cooler temperatures ahead but when it gets this hot I dream about those childhood days and wish policy for flying would allow us to wear cut-offs and go barefoot.


Staring out from the cockpit across smoky boreal forest waterfowl habitat northeast of Ft. McMurray, AB. (Photo by Walt Rhodes, USFWS) Staring out from the cockpit across smoky boreal forest waterfowl habitat northeast of Ft. McMurray, AB. (photo by Walt Rhodes, USFWS)

 

2018 SC Alberta BPOP Survey Crew. Joe Sands to the left and Jim Bredy Photo Credit: USFWS

Southern Alberta Ponds and Upland Habitat look Incredible!

Written by Jim Bredy

Southern and Central Alberta

My April 9 report indicated a late winter with Southern Alberta still locked up in a deep freeze. We hoped and prayed for warm temperatures and a quick thaw to rapidly fill the wetland basins.

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We are all fortunate, because that is exactly what happened! I first flew this survey area in 1988. The Southern Alberta portion of this survey extends from the Montana border to a bit north of Edmonton, Alberta.

These are the best overall conditions I can recall since I started flying here. In the past, sometimes the short-grass prairie region in the southeastern part of Alberta looked good, while the aspen parkland habitats to the north were marginal. Other times, the parklands were good and the grasslands were in fair to poor condition. This year, I will report that overall, most of the Southern Alberta portion of the survey will be in good to excellent condition. The exception will be the heavily farmed agricultural areas. The ducks did respond with increased duck numbers seen in many of the areas, especially the areas to the south. The parkland raw count duck numbers were down a bit, partially due to the great conditions further to the south, that most likely “short-stopped” some ducks.

The final population estimates will be determined after all of the Canadian Wildlife Service’s ground counts are factored in with the “visibility correction factors” or VCFs. The VCF is determined by counting “from the ground” specific portions of the survey area, and comparing the total ground count, to the count from the air. The area remaining to be surveyed is the area north of Edmonton to Cold Lake, Slave Lake, Peace River and Grande Prairie, Alberta; and Ft. St. John, British Columbia. We will provide a survey wrap-up of the entire survey area in a week, weather permitting.

As I crossed the Canada border south of Lethbridge, Alberta, it was apparent that most of the wetlands there were mostly full, with a bit of residual snow around the edges. (USFWS photo by Jim Bredy)
As I crossed the Canada border south of Lethbridge, Alberta, it was apparent that most of the wetlands there were mostly full, with a bit of residual snow around the edges. (USFWS photo by Jim Bredy)

Excellent wetland and upland habitat conditions prevail in the Milk River Ridge area, east of Cardston and south of Lethbridge, Alberta. (USFWS photo by Jim Bredy)
Excellent wetland and upland habitat conditions prevail in the Milk River Ridge area, east of Cardston and south of Lethbridge, Alberta. (USFWS photo by Jim Bredy)

A severe winter, followed by warm temperatures, helped to rapidly melt the snow and fill most of the wetland basins in this area. (USFWS photo by Jim Bredy)
A severe winter, followed by warm temperatures, helped to rapidly melt the snow and fill most of the wetland basins in this area. (USFWS photo by Jim Bredy)

Stratum 29 wetland and upland habitat conditions are vastly improved from last year, with the exception of the areas under the influence of heavy agricultural practices. (USFWS photo by Jim Bredy)
Stratum 29 wetland and upland habitat conditions are vastly improved from last year, with the exception of the areas under the influence of heavy agricultural practices. (USFWS photo by Jim Bredy)

The short-grass prairie area west of Empress, Alberta, this spring has some of the best wetland and upland habitat conditions in recent memory. Most of the wetland basins in this area have water in them, with many of them full. (USFWS photo by Jim Bredy)
The short-grass prairie area west of Empress, Alberta, this spring has some of the best wetland and upland habitat conditions in recent memory. Most of the wetland basins in this area have water in them, with many of them full. (USF&WS photo by Jim Bredy)

Most of the wetland basins 10 miles west of Calgary, Alberta, have water in them, with many of the basins full. (USFWS photo by Jim Bredy)
Most of the wetland basins 10 miles west of Calgary, Alberta, have water in them, with many of the basins full. (USF&WS photo by Jim Bredy)

This large wetland area NW of Edmonton, Alberta, is in good to excellent condition, with lots of available nesting habitat nearby. (USFWS photo by Jim Bredy)
This large wetland area NW of Edmonton, Alberta, is in good to excellent condition, with lots of available nesting habitat nearby. (USF&WS photo by Jim Bredy)

 

USFWS pilot-biologist Jim Wortham and Jared Laing USFWS)

Stay Tuned

Written by Jim Wortham and Jared Laing

Western Ontario and Northern Quebec

Last year was an extremely late year in western Ontario that saw snow and ice persist until well into May. It appears that spring is again reluctant to come to Ontario in 2018 and much of the province remains snow covered with only some lakes beginning to thaw in the southern portions.

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Despite the late conditions, we are prepared to launch into the survey as soon as the birds have a chance to settle out while ensuring that more northern migrants to not get too bunched along the ice line. Our amphibious Kodiak is prepped and loaded here in Florida where temperatures are already besting 90 degrees. Jared Laing, a waterfowl specialist from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department will be participating this year and serving as aerial observer and logistics liaison, and is using the late start to brush up on his French.

Our plan will be to rendezvous in Ohio and then travel together into Ontario. We hope to clear Canada Customs in Muskoka and then make our way to Kapuskasing to begin the survey there. Along the way, we will descend to check out some notable marshes and reacquaint ourselves with the sight pictures of some of these more northern “black and white” species.

 

USFWS pilot-biologist Walt Rhodes (L) and observer James Whitaker from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries seek some shade in Prince Albert, SK, while waiting to get fuel. (photo by Walt Rhodes, USFWS)

SK versus MB

Written by Walt Rhodes

Northern Saskatchewan and Northern Manitoba

Given that my Washington Capitals are in the NHL’s Eastern Conference Finals and I am in hockey-ripe Canada, I have this them-versus-us mentality going.

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My typical itinerary once departing Oregon is to fly to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to pick up my observer, and then head north the next day for Prince Albert. Once there, we begin the survey with the first few transects just north of town where the Parklands quickly transition to the boreal forest. But we also take a long run over to Manitoba and knock out the lines in Stratum 25 that are situated over the Saskatchewan River Delta.

Most of the transects in northern Manitoba are heavily influenced by the giant ice cube known as Hudson Bay. The Stratum 25 transects are the most western and southerly Manitoba lines in the crew area and this region is typically very close from a phenology standpoint to the transects west in Saskatchewan. If we did all of Saskatchewan first, by the time we got here two- to two-and-a-half weeks later experience has shown we can be behind the phenology curve.

A few days into the survey now this pattern remains but there is a slight difference. Above-normal temperatures have greeted us and spring is well on its way. Trees have leafed out and the grass is green and there is no ice on lakes in Saskatchewan. Breeding waterfowl are sprinkled nicely across the landscape. Duck pairs are scattered across Stratum 25 too but Manitoba is definitely a few days behind Saskatchewan. Oddly, right at the border, the trees only have a ting of green and some busted ice remains on the bigger lakes. There were still some tundra swan groups too, indicating a slight delay in migration.

Habitats look pretty decent so far across both provinces in the southern crew area despite the minor delay to the east. The consistent boreal forest benefitted from average winter precipitation although this month’s temperatures and lack of moisture the last two months is rapidly cutting into that principal. The Parklands, very wet for the last couple of years, appears to be getting some needed drying out.

We will continue to move north now in Saskatchewan before jumping over and finishing up the rest of Manitoba. Hopefully the Capitals will continue moving in the right direction to the Stanley Cup Finals as well. [Editor’s Note: the Capitals clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals on the evening of May 23. Stay tuned for word on how this might affect Walt’s experience in Canada.]

Parklands habitats just south of Prince Albert, SK. (photo by Walt Rhodes, USFWS)
Parklands habitats just south of Prince Albert, SK. (photo by Walt Rhodes, 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

Halfway there and winter returns to the “Rock”

Written by Mark Koneff

Maine and Atlantic Canada

By Maine and Atlantic Canada Crew Area standards our weather for the first half of the survey (that includes Maine and the Maritime Provinces of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia) has been stellar – winds have been ever present but within safety margins, but little precipitation, low ceilings, icing, or fog to speak of.

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After only about nine days on survey we had completed these areas and returned to Bangor, ME, for a required aircraft inspection. After four days down for maintenance we returned to resume the survey in Newfoundland, aka the “Rock”. Initially our unusual luck held and we managed to survey southern and central Newfoundland, flying two of three days since arrival. Phenology is spot on and birds are well distributed on breeding territories. Wetlands and lakes are ice free except for some lingering ice on larger water bodies in the highest terrain.

Somewhat sadly, we sit now in Stephenville on the southwest coast of Newfoundland watching low gray skies and cold rain spatter the hotel window. Not that we are short on activities since office work comes along for the ride in abundance and there is also some dramatic scenery nearby and amazing breeding seabird colonies hosting species like black-legged kittiwakes, common and thick-billed murres, black guillemots, and others.

More disturbing: three or four straight days of inclement weather are forecast is that some regions of Newfoundland are forecast to receive up to sixteen inches of snow over the next couple of days. We are on the fringe of the snowfall forecast so we are hoping for light accumulations and a reprieve from several hours of cleaning off the plane and clearing the surrounding snow piles from the ramp. But hey, you take the bad with the good and I’m grateful to experience the splendor of this beautiful island and partake in the hospitality of its fantastic people for a few more days before we move on to Great North Peninsula of northern Newfoundland and then finally on to Labrador to wrap up another May Survey.

Interior Newfoundland near the south shore, May 2018
Interior Newfoundland near the south shore, May 2018 Photo Credit: USFWS

Tablelands of interior Newfoundland, May 2018
Tablelands of interior Newfoundland, May 2018 Photo Credit: USFWS

Still some snow and ice at higher elevations of the Long Range Mountains of southwestern Newfoundland, May 2018
Still some snow and ice at higher elevations of the Long Range Mountains of southwestern  Newfoundland, May 2018 Photo Credit: USFWS

Seabirds nests on cliffs of Cape St. George, Newfoundland, May 2018
Seabirds nests on cliffs of Cape St. George, Newfoundland, May 2018 Photo Credit: USFWS

Survey segment endpoints and aerial hazards are imported and displayed with aviation databases on pilot iPads and portable GPS units enabling pilots to review hazard locations before flight and provide a display of upcoming hazards while flying low-level survey lines. New hazards are recorded by pilots during the survey and added to the database for use in future surveys
Survey segment endpoints and aerial hazards are imported and displayed with aviation databases on pilot iPads and portable GPS units enabling pilots to review hazard locations before flight and provide a display of upcoming hazards while flying low-level survey lines. New hazards are recorded by pilots during the survey and added to the database for use in future surveys Photo Credit: USFWS

Survey segment endpoints and aerial hazards are imported and displayed with aviation databases on pilot iPads and portable GPS units enabling pilots to review hazard locations before flight and provide a display of upcoming hazards while flying low-level survey lines. New hazards are recorded by pilots during the survey and added to the database for use in future surveys Photo Credit: USFWS

Survey segment endpoints and aerial hazards are imported and displayed with aviation databases on pilot iPads and portable GPS units enabling pilots to review hazard locations before flight and provide a display of upcoming hazards while flying low-level survey lines. New hazards are recorded by pilots during the survey and added to the database for use in future surveys

View from the cockpit of Quest Kodiak N769 on a low-level transect line in interior Newfoundland, May 2018
View from the cockpit of Kodiak N769 on a survey line in interior Newfoundland May 2018

 

Steve Olson (left) and Brian Lubinski (right) in High Level, AB, on May 19, 2018 after their third consecutive day of surveying.

Regeneration is Natural. Patience is Needed

Written by Steve Olson

Northern Alberta, Eastern British Columbia, AND Northwest Territories

Two years ago, I wrote in a pilot blog about the active fires surrounding Fort McMurray, Alberta, which prevented us from surveying segments in the area: “We reached a restricted fly zone around Fort McMurray, Alberta, and had to divert around active fires, sky-blackening smoke, and aerial firefighting equipment."

As seen by millions later on national news, wildfires not only consumed parts of Fort McMurray, prompting a full-scale evacuation of 88,000 people and an emergency state, but also consumed millions of acres across Northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories. Surveying breeding waterfowl was difficult in 2016 mostly due to avoiding active fires. In 2017, the “difficulty” was more of a disappointment. Flying over blackened, scorched terrain is most certainly the least enjoyable surveying experience. Wetlands in scorched areas were for the most part void of breeding birds, due to the lack of breeding habitat.

As we fly our southernmost survey transects in northern Alberta this year, we are pleasantly surprised and happy to report on the stages of forest regeneration and the early stages of succession. To put it bluntly, the shop is back open for business! My first thought from our viewpoint was, “My, look at those rolling green hills; they resemble a meadow or a golf course!” Of course, upon decreasing our distance we identified the “green” as trees. Millions of 1-4 foot spruce and 2-6 foot birch and aspen blanket the previously scorched black landscape. I surmise waterfowl are glad as well, as they are again taking advantage of the forest’s regeneration.

Many of you may also remember the forest fires in the Columbia River Gorge last summer. Living within 20 miles of those fires, the conversational buzz surrounding the fires was unavoidable. Many commented along the lines of, “gone forever” or similar. Even when I tried to rationalize their thoughts by explaining that the forests are adapted to fire and they will return, the typical comment back was, “well yea, in 40-60 years... I’ll never see it again!” Those conversations struck a chord with our observations in the north this year. I don’t wish to fully explain forest regeneration or succession in this blog post, but a thought came to my mind while flying.

These days, it’s especially easy to get caught up in the “doom and gloom” or the current state of things. But first, we must cherish the moment and take time to appreciate the current state because the state of anything, especially nature, is not static. Second, we must trust in the cycle of life and nature, where death breathes new life. And again, we must learn to appreciate the current state. In northern Alberta, the rolling hills of green have replaced the once blackened and scorched landscape and I know with certainty that Brian, myself, and the animals are fully appreciating the current state.

Another silver lining came when we questioned the people of Fort McMurray on the current state (of the town, businesses, and their attitudes) and their progress in rebuilding and repair. I’ll paraphrase the thoughts of our Fort McMurray taxi driver, “the fire was awful and destroyed a lot, but before the fire people were just coming and going. It was a just a transient worker town without much love or closeness. Since the fire, people have rallied and the community has come together. We have an identity. We have done amazing things.” The boreal is a great expanse, fire has always played a role in boreal habitat dynamics, and sometimes the most productive state of things is also the most dynamic state of things.

Forest regeneration following 2016 N. Alberta fire season. Photo By: Steve Olson
Forest regeneration following 2016 N. Alberta fire season. Photo By: Steve Olson USFWS

 

Manitoba crew members Sarah Yates and Jeff Drahota at their base, Maple Leaf Aviation, in Brandon, MB. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS)

We Finished

Written by Sarah Yates

Southern Manitoba-Southeastern Saskatchewan

We finished the survey on May 22nd. All routes were completed except for our northernmost line, three segments, which were right in the middle of some on-going forest fires. We can’t say we’re surprised to see fires popping up already given the extremely dry conditions.

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The southern parts of Manitoba have received almost no rain this spring, and with the below average precipitation this winter, habitat is dry throughout our entire crew area. Normally, things may be drier in the southern strata but the northern strata usually receive more precipitation overall. That has not been the case this year and even stratums 36 and 37 are showing signs of drought. Permanent waterbodies are low, the marshes on the big lakes are dry, and streams, ditches, canals, are completely dried up. As we end the survey and start our trip home we’ll be crossing our fingers that our crew area receives some rain over these next few months.

Flying up the West Waterhen River, near Lake Winnipegosis in Stratum 36. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS).
Flying up the West Waterhen River, near Lake Winnipegosis in Stratum 36. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS).

You can see how low the marshes are along Lake Winnipegosis. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS).
You can see how low the marshes are along Lake Winnipegosis. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS).

Smoke affected visibility on our last survey day. Our last transect was literally on fire so it couldn’t be completed. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS).
Smoke affected visibility on our last survey day. Our last transect was literally on fire so it couldn’t be completed. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS).

Flying the Melita air-ground in southern Manitoba. Video Credt: Jeff Drahota (USFWS).
20180511_Melita Segment

 

Steve Olson (left) and Brian Lubinski (right) in High Level, AB on May 19, 2018 after their third consecutive day of surveying.

The Crew Arrived

Written by Steve Olson

Northern Alberta, Eastern British Columbia, AND Northwest Territories

The Northwest Territories survey crew arrived Edmonton, Alberta, on May 17, 2018, with pilot-biologist Brian Lubinski arriving from Minneapolis, Minnesota, in Kodiak N708 and observer Steve Olson arriving on a commercial flight from Vancouver, Washington.

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The crew began surveying their southernmost lines the next day, ending their first day of surveying in Slave Lake, AB, where ice still covered Lesser Slave Lake despite the unseasonably warm temperatures!

High pressure dominated a large portion of the Canadian Provinces, allowing for a steady collection of waterfowl data over what appears to be average habitat conditions.
High pressure dominated a large portion of the Canadian Provinces, allowing for a steady collection of waterfowl data over what appears to be average habitat conditions. USFWS

 

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

Western South and North Dakota Complete

Written by Rob Spangler

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana

We 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.

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The increased precipitation in South Dakota this past year has resulted in nearly double the number of wetlands that we had counted in 2017. In North Dakota the number of wetlands has increased by about 30% over last year. Although analysis of the data isn’t complete, the numbers of birds appear to be higher this year and the conditions look promising for waterfowl in the Dakotas this spring.

North Dakota wetlands
North Dakota wetlands USFWS

South Dakota wetlands
South Dakota wetlands USFWS

 

Manitoba crew members Sarah Yates and Jeff Drahota at their base, Maple Leaf Aviation, in Brandon, MB. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS)

An Interesting Survey In Manitoba

Written by Sarah Yates

Southern Manitoba-Southeastern Saskatchewan

Things are a bit different this year. First, the ground crew, some whom have been participating in the survey for over twenty years, confirmed that this is the driest we’ve seen this area in a long time. This is mainly due to the below average precipitation received over the last year, and especially this winter. It’s been a very dry spring as well.

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Secondly, it was a below average, long and cold winter with very little snow to insulate the ice on the lakes. This led to record levels of ice on many of the larger lakes up north. When we arrived on May 7th ice was still melting on the larger lakes in southern part of the province and ice still remains on the larger lakes to north of our crew area. Therefore, while the resident birds are ready to go (paired up, even some flocked drakes around), we are still observing groups of birds waiting for the ice to melt in the North Country.

Also, the very dry conditions have most likely displaced some birds leading to larger grouping on the few wetlands that remain in our area. Some of the species we’ve been seeing in larger groups include Canada geese, white-fronted geese, snow geese, tundra swans, and some larger flocks of mallard drakes. Current trends in the raw data show that we are observing significantly fewer wetlands this year, and fewer birds total in most areas. Diving ducks like redhead and canvasbacks, which prefer deeper and larger wetlands, are down when compared with the last few years of survey.

On the plus side, the dry conditions have also lead to good flying weather and we’ve completed strata 35, 38, 39, and 40 in just seven days, so you could say things are flying along! We will finish up stratum 34 (the areas around Regina and Yorkton, SK) on the next good fly day, and will then move on to our more northern strata, 36 and 37. These last two will take us out of the prairie habitat and into the parkland and boreal habitat of Manitoba. We’ll get a bird’s eye view of just how much ice is left, if any, on the larger lakes present in those areas. We are both looking forward to continuing our journey north with the birds!

A map of our crew area, what we have flown already (areas with colored lines) and the areas we have left to fly (the green dots without lines). So far, we’ve had seven days of actual survey.
A map of our crew area, what we have flown already (areas with colored lines) and the areas we have left to fly (the green dots without lines). So far, we’ve had seven days of actual survey. USFWS

Early morning survey start near the Assiniboine River, just south of Brandon, Manitoba. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS).
Early morning survey start near the Assiniboine River, just south of Brandon, Manitoba. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS).

Wetland conditions are much dryer this year in Manitoba. There are very few seasonals, if any, semi-permanent wetlands are getting low, and even the larger waterbodies are showing some pretty wide margins as water levels decrease. The rain can’t come soon enough in this area. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS).
Wetland conditions are much dryer this year in Manitoba. There are very few seasonals, if any, semi-permanent wetlands are getting low, and even the larger waterbodies are showing some pretty wide margins as water levels decrease. The rain can’t come soon enough in this area. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS).

Wetland density and water level increases as we fly in Stratum 34 near Yorkton, SK. This is usually some of the best habitat we fly over and transects in this area keep us quite busy counting waterfowl! Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS).
Wetland density and water level increases as we fly in Stratum 34 near Yorkton, SK. This is usually some of the best habitat we fly over and transects in this area keep us quite busy counting waterfowl! Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS).

Can you find the waterfowl habitat? A contrast with the photo above, Stratum 38 has some of the worst habitat we fly over and is mostly developed for agricultural purposes. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS).
Can you find the waterfowl habitat? A contrast with the photo above, Stratum 38 has some of the worst habitat we fly over and is mostly developed for agricultural purposes. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS).

Jeff snapped a photo of one the few remaining areas of all natural wetlands (notice no roads and no agriculture) in southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba! Photo Credit: Jeff Drahota (USFWS).
Jeff snapped a photo of one the few remaining areas of all natural wetlands (notice no roads and no agriculture) in southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba! Photo Credit: Jeff Drahota (USFWS).

 

Dry Conditions at the Halfway Point

Written by Phil Thorpe

Southern Saskatchewan

As many of us say, another different year. Southern Saskatchewan has dried out since last year, but conditions vary widely. Seven days into the survey, we have seen the south and central parts of the prairies much drier than last year.

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Below normal precipitation last summer and throughout the fall and winter has left many of the seasonal wetlands dry and the semi-permanent wetlands drawn down. Spring precipitation continued to be sparse with well-below average amounts received so far. Little to no sheet water was observed in the southern grasslands and farmers have been hoping for some rain to help out with the newly seeded fields. So far, ducks are slightly more grouped up on wetlands because there are fewer wetlands to spread out on. The Missouri Coteau still has good water for the length of it that we have surveyed and lots of ducks were taking advantage of the good water conditions of the Coteau, especially in the more northern stretch of it in western Saskatchewan. We are down today with some much needed rain and less needed wind, but the forecast is for warm dry weather after today and for the rest of the survey, good for us and not so good for farmers in the province.

Kodiak N702 Leader, SK
Kodiak N702 Leader, SK USFWS

The big muddy along the U.S. - Canadian border is drying up because of the lack of winter runoff and below-average precipitation.
The big muddy along the U.S. - Canadian border is drying up because of the lack of winter runoff and below-average precipitation. USFWS

Good to excellent wetland conditions in the southwestern grasslands of Saskatchewan. Photo credit P. Thorpe, USFWS
Good to excellent wetland conditions in the southwestern grasslands of Saskatchewan. Photo credit P. Thorpe, USFWS

Most seasonal and all temporary and ephemeral wetlands are dry, Many semi-permanent wetlands remain in good condition.
Most seasonal and all temporary and ephemeral wetlands are dry, Many semi-permanent wetlands remain in good condition. USFWS

Dry wetlands in the southern grasslands.
Dry wetlands in the southern grasslands. USFWS

A view from the office in western Saskatchewan
A view from the office in western Saskatchewan USFWS

 

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

Getting the Survey Underway

Written by Terry Liddick

Eastern Dakotas

The eastern Dakotas crew assembled in Mitchell, South Dakota, for the Waterfowl Breeding and Habitat Survey on May 4th. I will again partner with Dave Fronczak on this year’s air crew, our eighth consecutive year. The ground crew will be led by Anthony Roberts, with Stephen LeJeune, Jay Hitchcock and Stephanie Catino.

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As usual, there is quite a bit that goes into getting the survey underway. This year saw a bit of a delayed spring most of the way through April. We received thirty-four inches of snow through the month. However, summer then appeared almost overnight. two days of flying, it was my opinion that we should assemble on May 4th and likely begin the survey on May 6th. All of the recent snow had melted, plenty of waterfowl were observed in northern North Dakota, and most of the ice had melted except for the wetlands on the coteau.

One of our returning ground crew members arrived in Rapid City on May 2nd. We drove back to Bismarck on May 3rd and again observed conditions across central South Dakota and south central North Dakota and all looked good for the ongoing waterfowl migration and pairing chronology. I performed a return to service flight with my plane that evening and prepared to head to Mitchell.

The following morning, Stephen dropped me off and drove to Mitchell and I flew a reconnaissance flight observing conditions from Bismarck to Mitchell. We used the morning of the 5th to ensure all equipment was working, and test flew a few segments to observe conditions farther south and ensure the recording system in the plane was working and make last minute preparations to begin.

By this time, we had been experiencing near summer like conditions for nearly two weeks. Day time temperatures had been consistently in the 70s, several in the 80s and all signs of the long winter and recent snow had been erased, with the exception of a now pretty good-looking landscape with more water and better wetland conditions than we have seen in recent years, particularly in southeastern South Dakota. Stay tuned for what we find when the survey begins.

 

Manitoba crew members Sarah Yates and Jeff Drahota at their base, Maple Leaf Aviation, in Brandon, MB. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS)

Spring has arrived in Manitoba!

Written by Sarah Yates

Southern Manitoba-Southeastern Saskatchewan

The long cold winter in the prairies is finally giving way to spring. From what I hear it was a rough winter this year in Manitoba with cold, ice, wind, and very little precipitation.

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Spring has definitely come later than that last few years and as I crossed the country I was still observing ice on the Great Lakes, and most of the larger lakes in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota.

My first impression of the conditions flying over the border and to Brandon, Manitoba, reflects what I’ve heard so far. Things looked very dry compared to the last two years. I observed no sheet water, very few seasonal ponds, and semi-permanent ponds and the Assiniboine River looked well within their margins. On the ground my observer, Jeff Drahota, and I confirmed more of the same. We even saw ice on Oak Lake, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen since I started surveying here five years ago.

However, with a warm up this last week, and temperatures in the 80s, things are moving along quickly now. From our reconnaissance, the blue-winged teal have arrived and are paired up, mallards are paired up and a few lone drakes observed, and we haven’t seen any large groups of scaup or other birds moving through to the north. It appears we are ready to start the survey! We will hopefully start on May 9th if the weather allows.

Ice in Chequamegon Bay, Lake Superior. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS)
Early morning ground fog.USFWS

Ice on Upper Red Lake, Northern Minnesota. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS).
Plenty of water on the landscape.USFWS

Looking dry in southern Manitoba. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS)
Semi-permanent wetlands are full.USFWS

The ice is still melting on Oak Lake-Stratum 39. Birds hanging out in pockets of open water. Photo Credit: Sarah Yates (USFWS)
Pothole habitat in Stratum 39.USFWS

 

Biologist/Pilot Steve Earsom (L) and Observer Garrett Wilkerson waiting on better weather in Ottawa, Ontario, 10 May 2018. Photo: Steve Earsom (USFWS)

Surfing by Flashlight

Written by Steve Earsom

Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec

This year is different, just like all the others. The April snows and cold weather in our crew area suggested we would be getting a later start than what I usually plan for on the survey. Ice-locked lakes and widespread snow cover supported that notion.

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But then Mother Nature flipped a switch, and the snows quickly retreated to the north. My Canadian colleague advised that things looked about right for a normal start date, so we departed. The batteries in our flashlight were dim, however.

The satellite picture still showed a number of frozen lakes in areas where there should be none, and the proprietors at the cabin where we usually stay on the second night were nowhere near ready for us. They said they still had ice around the lake fringes, and they hadn’t even gotten the dock in the water yet since the weather had kept them behind on other pre-opening tasks. We headed to Ottawa instead, after completing our first survey day, which looked relatively normal for the waterfowl.

We often use the analogy of surfing a wave in describing this survey. If we are ahead of the wave, we might count a number of far-north breeders like longtails and scoters that are just passing through, which would inappropriately inflate their population estimates. If we get on the back side of the wave, we see fewer breeding pairs of our expected species than what we should see, which decreases the population estimate. The trick is to ride the wave throughout, slowly ratcheting higher in both latitude and elevation. The problem is the wave doesn’t advance at a constant speed, and all we know for sure is what is illuminated out the airplane’s window. So we surf using our flashlight, flying additional segments (weather allowing) if we start getting behind, and slowing down if it appears we are getting ahead of the breeding chronology.

 

Maine and Atlantic Canada survey crew for 2018, Biologist/Pilot, Mark Koneff, and Biologist/Observer, Heidi Hanlon, in front of Quest Kodiak Amphibian N769. USFWS photo.

The Bright Side of the Cool Temps

Written by Mark Koneff

Maine and Atlantic Canada

In Maine and the Maritime Provinces winter 2017-2018 started in late December with cold and snowy conditions. Temperatures moderated through February and early March, however, colder than normal temperatures returned for late March and persisted through April resulting in a delayed ice break up.

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The bright side of the cool temps and snow and ice cover persisting into late April in Maine was a late hatch of black flies and a few days of pleasant early season soft water fishing or turkey hunting for many! Warm temperatures in early May resulted in a rapid ice out and snow melt that caused some flooding in Maine but record flooding in the St. John River Valley in New Brunswick.

Winter was more tenacious across Newfoundland and Labrador with cold temperatures and snow persisting. I suspect a normal spring phenology in Newfoundland but a delayed phenology in Labrador. In general, wetland conditions across the crew area are expected to be good with the possible exception of western Maine where slightly drier conditions are expected.

My biologist-observer this year, Heidi Hanlon, arrived in Bangor on 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 third year as an observer on the survey, and she has got the drill down so I look forward to an uncomplicated survey with the help of an experienced observer.

We’ll report back mid-way through the survey and once we have a few strata under our belt.

Many wetlands, streams, and rivers are running high and full of melt water after northern Maine finally thawed in late April
Many wetlands, streams, and rivers are running high and full of melt water after northern Maine finally thawed in late April Photo Credit: USFWS

Ice is receding fast in the Rangeley Lakes District of western Maine
Ice is receding fast in the Rangeley Lakes District of western Maine Photo Credit: USFWS

North end of Moosehead Lake, Maine
North end of Moosehead Lake, Maine Photo Credit: USFWS

A beautiful day in western Maine in between transect lines.
A beautiful day in western Maine in between transect lines. Photo Credit: USFWS

 

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

Time to Go

Written by Rob Spangler

Western Dakotas and Eastern Montana

Tomorrow is the start of our survey and we are anxious to get going with a good weather forecast ahead. Joining me again this year is Ryan Anthony (aerial observer) as well as Brad Rodgers and Dan Collins (ground observers).

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Over the past couple of weeks we have been in contact with fellow wildlife biologists from the states of South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana in order to determine the start date for the survey as the breeding chronology is influenced by weather and habitat conditions. Many of our fellow biologists are delaying the start of their surveys because of the harsh winter which caused a delay in migration this year. However, with this warm weather, everything is progressing rapidly so we intend to only delay by a few days. It does not take long for birds to move and get settled onto their breeding territories.

Today we spent time in the field sampling ponds in our survey area to determine species composition and breeding chronology. Ideally, we would like to see all species present and well-distributed with an approximate 50:50 split of pairs to single drakes before we start the survey. After our observations we confirmed that it is time to go!

 

Timing Depends on Distribution and Social Groups

Written by Phil Thorpe

Southern Saskatchewan

Preparation for the southern Saskatchewan waterfowl breeding population and habitat survey started in April with a call to the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) biologists Blake Bartzen and Keith Warner to ask how the spring was progressing in the province. The CWS will run surveys on several of the air-ground comparison segments that we fly and they drive during the May survey.

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They have kept a long term dataset on those April surveys and can go back and look at what they’ve seen in the past and how things are looking in the current year to come up with a general idea of how the migration and breeding season is shaping up.

A couple outings around Saskatoon in late April indicated that habitat and duck timing were still on the early side. No coots were seen, arctic nesting species were still plentiful, and prairie nesting species were still “kind of light” and distribution of those species was “just not right”, meaning they were in groups and not distributed across the smaller wetlands like they would be once they were nesting. Large lakes were still frozen along with smaller farm ponds. Canada geese were also still grouped up, which for late April is unusual since they are some of the earliest nesting species on the prairies.

Timing of the survey comes down to distribution and social groupings. We like to have mallards in social groupings of 50% drakes—or males--to 50% pairs. That gives us an idea that nesting has started, but has not progressed so far that we would end up missing some early nesting species by the end of the three week survey. We can’t just look at mallards though, many other species nest in the prairies and migration and distribution of those species also is important to getting a good population estimate for those species too. The risk of starting too early is possibly double counting some species that are moving farther north.

Lesser scaup are one of the species that we look at for timing the survey; if there are too many in southern Saskatchewan we can risk counting them in our survey and then Walt, in northern Saskatchewan, could also count them and that could falsely inflate the population estimate for scaup. Scaup do nest in the prairies as well as the boreal forest. In the prairies we want to see them spaced out on smaller wetlands not in large groups on large water bodies, which might be a sign we are on the early side of their migration. Blue-winged teal are another species that come into the province in groups and then distribute themselves out across the landscape. If we start the survey too early, they could get counted in the Dakotas by those crews and then again by us during our survey.

To sum it all up, we look at mallard to drake pair ratios, distribution of lesser scaup and blue-wings and presence of arctic nesting species (e.g., swans, geese, cranes). Once ducks look distributed and spaced out, we start the survey. This year, we started on May 8th when the timing looked about right for southern Saskatchewan.

 

2017

Last Updated: September 21, 2018