Story and photos by Craig Bihrle - Associate Editor of North Dakota OUTDOORS.
North Dakota OUTDOORS - July 1994
Binoculars pointed east toward a wetland teeming with ducks, Johnson methodically relays the pond's contents to his partner:
"Two-oh ruddy, one-oh red, pair a gads, twooh shove, three coots. Pair a gads, one-oh ruddy, pair a gads, three-one red, one-oh shove, pair a wigeon, pair a reds, one-oh gad, two-oh shove, pair a blues. Pair a mals, one-oh blue, one-oh green..."
The monologue goes on until every duck on the slough is identified and recorded. "...one-oh green, one-oh wigeon, pair a gads, coot, one-oh scaup." Johnson lowers his binoculars and ends the count at a few more than 80 birds. "There's nothing else I can see," he tells Kohn.
Stan Kohn (left) records duck observations relayed by Mike Johnson.
From the passenger side of the Suburban's front seat, Kohn laughs. "Okay, I'm ready now," he teases, "What was after that very first coot you gave me?" The two waterfowl biologists both share a laugh as the Suburban moves forward, but only a tenth of a mile or so, until the next wetland is encountered. This one's on the passenger side, so it's Kohn's turn to dictate.
One-oh shove and a pair a gads... Translation: A lone drake shoveler whose mate is likely on a nest, and a pair of gadwalls, occupying a pothole, in the middle of the waterfowl breeding season, in central North Dakota.
Every May, Game and Fish Department biologists perform a ritual called the waterfowl breeding pair survey. They drive the same routes from year to year, counting waterfowl and water areas. The survey provides an annual comparison of habitat conditions and breeding pair numbers, and offers an early indicator of what waterfowl hunters might expect in the fall.
Eight routes or transects that run from South Dakota to the Canadian border, covering more than 1,000 miles, dissect the state from west to east. Four two-man crews conduct the survey, each driving two transects, which takes 2-5 days to complete, depending on water conditions along the route.
"We stop and look at every visible body of water within 220 yards of the road," Johnson explained, "which is as far as you can identify ducks." On water bodies that extend beyond 220 yards from the road, surveyors count only the birds out to the 220-yard mark.
Each transect is broken into 18-mile segments. The location (in miles) of each water area within that segment is also noted. At the end of each 18 miles, the trip odometer is set back to zero.
The water area could be a wetland, river, creek, ditch or livestock dugout.
Every duck observed within 220 yards of the road is recorded, whether it's sitting on a wetland or flying. Ducks are classified by species, and by their behavior characteristics.
For instance, two drake mallards sitting together are listed as 2-0 under the mallard category for a particular wetland. Just because those drakes aren't with a hen, doesn't mean they aren't breeding. Mallards are early nesters. By the time the pair count starts in mid-May, most mallard hens are sitting on a nest. The drakes have likely already mated. Unless they are in a group or five or more, they count as part of a breeding pair.
Pairs of early-nesting ducks like mallards and pintails are often seen during mid-May, however. In those cases, Johnson says the hen probably lost her first nest to a predator, and has chosen a drake that had been just sitting around, as a new mate to initiate a renesting attempt.
Stopping frequently and recording water areas and ducks can become a tedious chore, especially in wet years, but for a waterfowl biologist it could be termed a labor of love. Johnson and Kohn look forward to each year's survey, perhaps even a little more this year because of the prospects of good water conditions after so many dry years.
One of their transects (Number 3) starts at the South Dakota border on the west side Of the Missouri River and winds up at the Canadian border in northwestern Bottineau County. Their second transect (5) starts at the International Peace Garden and follows ND Highway 3 back down to the South Dakota border . During the 1994 survey they didn't encounter good water conditions or numbers of ducks until they got about I0 miles north of Harvey at the end or their second day on the road.
The pace is slow when there's water and ducks. Startling at 8 a.m. at Harvey on day three of the survey, Stan and Mike hoped to wind up the count later in the day with a traditional burger and chocolate malt at Ashley, then head back to Bismarck. But by noon both biologists confirmed that supper in Ashley was in jeopardy.
In four hours they traveled 30 miles, averaging about five stops per mile. That put them about halfway between Hurdsfield and Tuttle, with a promising stretch of prairie pothole country in front of them.
The next eight miles took an hour and 15 minutes of stopping, looking and starting. The pace was slowing. "My eyes feel like somebody's got their thumbs in them," Johnson complained only half in jest.
Running the same route together since 1986, Johnson and Kohn are highly familiar with the water areas along Highway 3, especially the stretch between Tuttle and Steele. In addition to the annual pair survey, every week in April and May, the Department conducts a "test run" from Sterling to Wing On Highway 14; then from Wing to Tuttle on Highway 36; then down Highway 3 to Steele.
The test run is designed to gauge progress of the duck migration and mating activity. Based on that information Johnson schedules the statewide breeding pair count to roughly coincide with the peak of duck breeding activity.
Knowing the route as they do, the two waterfowl biologists point out wetlands they haven't recorded for years, if ever. In the central part of the state, last summer's rains had a lot to do with that. "Some of these have sprung up this year," Kohn noted as the Suburban hauled down Highway 3 between potholes, "where they haven't really been around before."
In the 21 miles between Tuttle and Steele, the waterfowl survey vehicle with its flashing yellow caution light on top stopped 93 times. Imagine yourself as a rural mail carrier on a 20-mile route, with about five mail boxes per mile, and you get a pretty good feeling for that part of the survey.
Some wetlands are large and require several stops to thoroughly explore. Some, like a flooded ditch, can be surveyed with the naked eye, but most require binoculars or a spotting scope.
All the numbers put together at the end of the survey produce an index to the number of breeding pairs and water areas. One year's data by itself doesn't mean much, but when compared to other years and long-term trends, the index is a fairly accurate indicator of the duck production potential in North Dakota.
Game and Fish biologists have surveyed breeding pairs of ducks since 1948, according to Johnson. The first few years transects were flown with an airplane.
The transects have been surveyed from roadsides since the early-1950s. The only change in the transects in the last 40 years was an adjustment when Lake Sakakawea was forming.
Routes were set up along highways, Johnson said, instead of gravel back roads, to take advantage of better road conditions. In fact, some of the highways used today may have been gravel when the transects were established.
While highways provide smooth travel, they come with inherent hazards, such as traffic. But over the years there have been few problems. In North Dakota, even on state highways, the traffic is seldom heavy.
That's especially nice when you're counting ducks and you run into an area where there's water seemingly over every hilltop - like the Game and Fish Department's two waterfowl biologists encountered on the third day of their survey.
It was getting close to burger time when the Suburban got past a series of wetlands south of Dawson. From that spot to Napoleon, a distance of about 20 miles, Johnson noted that only three wetlands were recorded in 1993. But any thoughts of making up time were quickly dashed. In six miles the vehicle stopped for a look at 14 water areas. By Napoleons the count was up to 49.
Sundown was closing in when the duck counters finally reached Ashley. With seven miles to go to reach the South Dakota border and the end of the route, Kohn and Johnson had no choice but to lay over at the local motel and finish the next morning when there would be good light far identifying ducks.
The odometer indicated the Suburban traveled 155 miles. In 13 hours. With close to 500 stops. From a waterfowl biologist's perspective, it was a fine day, with water areas and ducks recorded at a pace not seen far many years.
It was a long day, too. But there was still time for that burger and chocolate malt.
There's a good reason why it took Mike Johnson and Stan Kohn a bit longer than normal to run transect 5 of the waterfowl breeding pair survey this spring. There was a lot of ducks to count. Lots and lots of ducks.
"The route we were on (5)," Johnson explained after he put together preliminary results of the 1994 survey, "had the highest density of ducks ever recorded anywhere in the state...by almost a factor of two."
That's an impressive number, considering the survey has been conducted since 1948, and especially since nearly half the transect was visibly dryer than a normal year.
Statewide, the outlook for ducks is promising. The breeding pair index is up 105 percent from last year, and is the second highest since 1976 (only 1979 was higher). The pair index is also almost 52 percent higher than the average compiled from 1948-93.
The number of breeding pairs was up significantly on each of the eight transects, and for every major duck species that nests in North Dakota. In addition, the 1994 count showed all species except pintail and lesser scaup above the longterm average. But neither pintails or scaup were significantly below the average, and both showed more than a l 00 percent increase from last year.
In a year of exceptional duck numbers, perhaps the mallard index outshines them all. According to the survey, there are more mallards nesting in North Dakota this year than in any other year since 1948. Mallard pair numbers are up 131 percent from last year, and are more than twice the longterm average.
Oddly enough, this onslaught of breeding ducks into North Dakota comes during a year when water conditions are only slightly better (nine percent) than last year. For survey purposes, a wetland counts as one pond whether it is full or nearly dry. This year a lot of wetlands are full for the first time in years. "We may have only nine percent more ponds than last year," Johnson said, "but we've got a lot more water."
In addition, last year there were more temporary ponds, or water that may be standing on fields or in ditches far only a short time. This year, Johnson said, there's a greater percentage of larger or deeper ponds that will hold water longer.
More ducks are in North Dakota because the state has good water conditions. A good number of birds that would normally continue north to nest in Canada stopped here because they found what they needed. "We have abundant water and abundant nesting cover, and we short-stopped them," Johnson noted.
While more ducks are here primarily because of good water, it is the good nesting cover in the form of Conservation Reserve Program acres that particularly excites waterfowl managers. (Note: More information on the CRP). "Tall dense stands of grass provided by CRP, in large blocks, is the best we could hope for in terms of duck nesting habitat.
"I think we're set up to have a real significant nesting effort statewide this year," Johnson predicted. "I think we're going to have a real good fall population come out of both Dakotas."