Watching for waterfowl: A day with the local duck queen
By Ben Gruber
In early November Addy and I spent an evening sitting in the back of a pickup, staring through binoculars overlooking a picked cornfield at the edge of the Mead Wildlife Area. Our mission for the night was to count every duck and goose that we saw. It sounds simple, and at first it seemed like it would be.
There was a flock of birds feasting on the remaining corn left from the recent harvest, roughly a hundred geese and about the same number of ducks. With 90 minutes of daylight left, we counted those on the field and listened to their calls. Scattered pairs and small flocks of six to 12 birds slowly trickled in.
As we waited for the birds to leave their daytime loafing areas on local waters, Patrice Eyers, a wildlife technician at the Mead, gave me some history on waterfowl management at the Mead. They have records of flight counts going back to 1969, and Eyers has been working here for 11 years.
The goal of these counts is to track the migration and see how well the 33,000-acre property holds birds throughout the season. They count birds at least once a week from the last week in August until the water freezes up. The numbers counted impact their management strategies and how they manage food sources throughout the wetlands and also on crop fields that are farmed through sharecropping with local farmers.
With about 40 minutes of daylight remaining, the skies started to pour ducks. Flocks of mallards no longer were suddenly numbering in the 100s, and those flocks would join together, circling the cornfield like a Midwest tornado. Their excited feed call chatters filled the air as they jockeyed for the waste grains left by the combine.
Geese were pouring into the fields on the other side of the road with a few whooping cranes standing out with their brilliant white plumage. Final numbers have not been tallied, but we finished in the thousands. It is no exact science trying to count that many birds flying around, but being witness to it, I would say those are very conservative numbers.
After the 2009 hunting season, a group of hunters from the area worked to implement some management changes to the hunting at the Mead Wildlife Area to try and ease the significant hunting pressure the property receives. Early closures for the first 16 days of season, as well as elimination of some early hunting seasons, give the migrating birds a chance to rest without hunting pressure.
According to the numbers, the changes seem to be making a significant impact. In 2009 flight counts of ducks only ranged from 1,511 up to 3,147. This year’s preseason counts showed 4,765 ducks. That number always decreases as the hunting season opens and then builds back up as more ducks migrate. On Oct. 16 of this year, the flight counts showed 6,010 ducks.
There are two wildlife technicians and a property manager at the Mead, and a few other staff as well. These folks do a fantastic job of managing a wonderful property. Hunters and bird watchers of central Wisconsin have a great resource here. If you are not a hunter, there a few observation areas at the Mead that offer a great place to get up close to large numbers of migrating waterfowl. Check it out.
Ben Gruber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.