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Illinois hunting and fishing

Mallards and northern pintails feed among clumps of Walter’s millet at the Chautauqua National WIldlife Refuge. Photos by Chris Young.

Habitat work pays off for Chautauqua

November 22, 2012 at 05:18 PM

The State Journal-Register


At first glance, it doesn’t look like there are that many ducks at Lake Chautauqua.

But as a pickup truck turns into the parking lot of the Eagle Bluff Access, hundreds and thousands of mallards and northern pintails take flight, exploding out of a sea of partially flooded Walter’s millet.

After awhile, they settle down again, each duck disappearing into the vegetation, like a gift card dropped into an envelope.

Waterfowl enthusiasts, biologists, hunters and birdwatchers can sit back and smile, as a summer’s worth of habitat work comes to fruition during the peak of migration.

Earlier this summer, the south pool of the Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge near Havana was drained to allow for wetland plants to sprout and grow.

Normally, managers watch the skies and weather forecasts all summer hoping a heavy summer rain doesn’t push the Illinois River into backwater refuges where it can wash out wetland plants before they mature.

Wildlife refuges are protected by levees, but they are generally much lower than those protecting farm fields and towns.

But this summer’s drought kept water levels low.

The result was a sea of green Walter’s millet, smartweed, red root sedge, arrowhead and other wetlands plants.

Just before migration, water was pumped back in to flood the vegetation and allow ducks to feed on nutritious seeds and tubers.

Only after a climb to the top of an observation tower used for waterfowl surveys at Lake Chautauqua does the complex relationship between ducks and wetland vegetation become apparent.

Some ducks paddle through open space between clumps of vegetation. Others are tipped down with tails in the air as they feed underwater.

“They act just like little bulldozers,” said Jake Randa, wildlife biologist with the Illinois River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge complex that includes Lake Chautauqua. “They just keep pushing it down as they are feeding in it. Over time, these little pockets of open water are now big pockets.”

An inviting place

Numbers at Lake Chautauqua have jumped in recent weeks.

Aerial surveys show 20,150 ducks counted Oct. 29, rising to 54,800 ducks Nov. 13.

A recent ground survey by longtime volunteers Richard and Sigurd Bjorklund estimated 115,000 ducks were using the refuge Nov. 16.

Randa said that’s a conservative estimate because the ducks are so hard to survey with all the vegetation present.

“You can’t get a good vantage point on the whole pool from any one spot,” Randa said. “It is just tough. When you are dealing with this many birds it is a tricky endeavor.”

Heath Hagy, director of the Illinois Natural History Survey’s Forbes Biological Station, located next door to the Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, said aerial surveys employ formulas to account for ducks hidden by trees and vegetation.

“That can be pretty difficult, and you can’t count them all, all of the time,” Hagy said. “But we know that if ducks are in emergent vegetation, we will only be able to count 60 percent, and we may only be able to see 40 percent in a bottomland forest.

“We miss a lot of birds, but as long as you know how many you miss, you can correct your estimates.”

The purpose of the surveys isn’t to count every single duck, but to get an idea of migration trends in the Illinois and Mississippi River valleys.

Estimates of numbers of ducks using a particular site also help scientists better understand how those sites are providing food and shelter for migrating waterfowl.

Illinois hunting and fishing
Bottoms up. Pintails feast on wetland vegetation at the Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge.

Scientists with the Forbes Station mapped wetland vegetation at Lake Chautauqua and estimated there is enough food to feed 100,000 ducks for a 40-day stopover at the refuge.

“And there is a good diversity of plant species, and that’s why we have a diversity of waterfowl species out there,” Hagy said. “The refuge has done a wonderful job this year. It really looks good.”

For managers who work hard to keep habitat optimal for migrating birds, 115,000 ducks on Lake Chautauqua is a nice reward.

“It is very cool to say the least,” Randa said. “You spend all year working toward one thing and then when it finally happens and it comes off without a hitch, you are kind of just amazed at what you did.”

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528.


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