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Duck research project paying dividends for North Dakota students

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UND wildlife student John Palarski says the opportunity to gain field research experience as an undergraduate has provided learning opportunities he never could have gotten in the classroom. (UND Biology Department photo) 2 / 3
A badger eats a duck egg raided from a nest in central North Dakota in this photo taken from a video clip in May 2015. UND undergraduate biology students have been getting real world field experience monitoring video cameras placed near duck nests as part of a cooperative project with Ducks Unlimited and others.3 / 3

DENHOFF, N.D. — Duck eggs might not be a deer's favorite food, but at least one small whitetail buck found them to his liking last summer.

A video camera strategically placed next to a duck nest caught the burglarizing buck in the act; he devoured the eggs — shells and all.

Seeing is believing, as the old saying goes.

"I've never heard of anything like that before," said Nick Conrad, a University of North Dakota senior who will be graduating this spring with a bachelor's degree in fisheries and wildlife biology. "That's something I never knew."

Conrad is among the UND undergraduate students who have gained field research experience the past two summers in central North Dakota as part of a research partnership with Ducks Unlimited and other partners, including the U.S. Geological Survey and the Nature Conservancy.

The project, which is entering its third season, is giving undergraduate wildlife students opportunities in a setting traditionally reserved for graduate students.

In the process, the research, which involves placing infrared video cameras next to duck nests, is yielding new information about the nesting habits of blue-winged teal and mallards and the predators that prey on their nests.

"It's gone above and beyond our expectations," said Kaylan Carrlson, manager of conservation planning for Ducks Unlimited's Great Plains Regional Office in Bismarck, N.D.

Pilot project

According to Susan Ellis-Felege, UND assistant professor of wildlife ecology and management, the seeds for the project were planted in 2015 during a discussion with Carrlson about the need to give young natural resources students field experience.

UND's involvement was a perfect fit, Carrlson said, because Ellis-Felege has extensive experience in using cameras in field research. A grant from energy company Enbridge helped purchase some of the cameras used in the research, Carrlson said.

UND also had cameras from previous projects.

"Everybody loves nest cameras," Ellis-Felege said. "When you put a camera on a bird, you get just a little piece of their life. Sometimes it's good, and sometimes it's not so good for the duck, and a badger or raccoon ends up with a tasty dinner. ... But it's something you can use for teaching."

The research started as a pilot project in 2015, when Conrad and UND student John Palarski, a freshman at the time, worked with DU biologist Tanner Gue to install infrared video cameras next to 33 blue-winged teal nests on DU's Coteau Ranch near Denhoff.

"They wanted some nest monitoring, and we wanted to facilitate opportunities to get students out there interacting with potential employers and chances to talk with the public because DU does so many events with the public and schools," Ellis-Felege said.

The students located the nests by learning conventional nest-dragging techniques, pulling a 150-foot length of chain between two ATVs to flush hens off their nests.

They then marked nest locations, recording data such as the age and number of eggs, type and abundance of vegetative cover and whether the hen was present.

The cameras were installed after hens had finished laying their eggs.

"Going into the project, I figured I'd be doing some nest dragging and marking nests and basic stuff," Palarski said. "For a freshman like myself who didn't have any research experience, it was a lot to take in at first. I had no idea this was going to transpire into what it has."

The students monitored the nests by downloading the video clips every day or two, poring through hours of nothingness to see how often and how long hens left their nests and what predators were most prevalent. They also had to change out the batteries every couple of days.

Besides providing research guidance and a site to work, Ducks Unlimited paid for the students to stay in a house near Goodrich, N.D., that serves as a hunting lodge during the waterfowl season.

"It's kind of a blessing, actually, that we live in Goodrich because you have nothing else to do," joked Palarski. "You get back to camp and watch video until you fall asleep."

The project that first year found hens left their nests two or three times a day, most often early in the morning and in the evening, for about 103 minutes at a time. Nest success was 22 percent, and badgers were the most common nest predators, followed by ground squirrels and raccoons.

Research expands

The 2015 partnership was so successful that the research in 2016 expanded to the adjacent Davis Ranch, a site owned by the Nature Conservancy. Students Patrick Chastan, who recently graduated, and Sam Krohn joined Palarski and Conrad for the 2016 field season.

The four interns last season monitored 45 nests, including 10 mallard nests, Ellis-Felege said.

For the coming field season, which runs from mid-May until the birds leave their nests in mid-July, the project is adding a communication component. Sarah Cavanah from UND's communications department, graduate student Amanda Pasierb and Becky Jones-Mahlum, DU's Great Plains regional communications manager in Bismarck, will be working with intern Mason Lombard to spread the word on the research — in a way the public can understand — through video, social media and a website dedicated to the project.

Lombard will be working in the field and communicating the science.

"I think they'll be very busy, just based on everybody's ideas for what this person could be doing," Jones-Mahlum said. "We're really happy because we want to make sure there's lots getting out to the public."

Palarski and Krohn will be back in the field this spring along with new interns Allicyn Nelson, Jaylin Solberg and Lombard. Conrad was hired to work with DU on an ongoing research project in the western North Dakota oil patch, but he is collaborating with Palarski and Ellis-Felege on a manuscript they hope to publish in an academic journal based on the nest camera study.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is editor of the Herald's Northland Outdoors section and also works as a copy editor and page designer. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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