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 UND 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.
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. An Ecofootprint Grant from energy company Enbridge Inc., 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 in Sheridan County.
“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.
The students spent the first part of the day in the field before heading back to pore through the hours of video footage.
“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.”
Even after watching thousands of hours, Conrad says they haven’t seen all the footage.
“It’s still continuing,” Conrad said. “It gets to the point where you wish the eggs would hatch or you hope something like a predator would come into view.”
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.
Based on their research, Palarski and Conrad presented a poster in October 2015 during The Wildlife Society’s annual North American conference in Winnipeg, winning the undergraduate competition for best poster. Last spring, the students won the poster competition at the North Dakota Chapter of The Wildlife Society’s annual conference in a field that also included graduate students.
The North American conference win marked the third consecutive year UND undergraduate students had placed first or second in the poster competition, Ellis-Felege said.
“It made people go, ‘Hmm, this UND program, we should pay attention to what’s going on there,’ ” she said. “We got some national attention out of that because students succeeded at doing research.”
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; Palarski and Conrad used their previous year’s experience to mentor the new students.
“That was kind of a fun way of getting experience as undergrads and developing leadership skills,” Ellis-Felege said.
“They’re seeing projects from start to finish so they’re part of designing things, asking questions, analyzing data, talking about it to scientists and nonscientists.”
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.
Getting published is an important facet of research, so working on the manuscript provides the students with yet another crucial real world experience.
“We’re very fortunate to have that opportunity because being published as an undergraduate is huge and very rare,” Palarski said.
As, indeed, are most of the experiences the students have gained working on the project. Palarski says deciding to pursue the internship is the best decision he’s ever made.
“You can get a degree in the classroom in wildlife biology, but you’re not a wildlife biologist at that point,” Palarski said. “You have to have some real world experience.
“I don’t think you can get that kind of experience (as an undergraduate) in a lot of other places.”
Here’s a look at the partners and their contributions to the duck nest project.
- Ducks Unlimited: Besides technical assistance and guidance in waterfowl research techniques, DU provides a research site at its Coteau Ranch in central North Dakota, pays for the students to stay in a Goodrich, N.D., house that serves as a hunting lodge during waterfowl season and supplies the 150-foot chain used for nest dragging.
- UND: Provides technical and research assistance, some of the video cameras used to monitor nests, ATVs for use in the field and a stipend for the student interns. Susan Ellis-Felege is faculty lead, and Sarah Cavanah is UND’s lead on the science communication part of the study set to launch this field season.
- The Nature Conservancy: Owns the adjacent Davis Ranch, which allowed the project to expand last year.
- U.S. Geological Survey: Provided four ATVs for the students to use beginning with the 2016 field season.
- Enbridge Inc.: Awarded DU with an Ecofootprint Grant that helped purchase some of the video cameras.