Counting ducks can be a challenge, what with the water and thick grass they rely on for habitat, but a research project in the Missouri Coteau country of central North Dakota aims to shed light on the potential for using drones to conduct some of that survey work.

Working with Ducks Unlimited staff and others, UND graduate student Mason Ryckman spent much of last summer on DU’s Coteau Ranch and adjacent Davis Ranch, which is owned by The Nature Conservancy, counting duck pairs, locating and tallying nests and studying how ducks behave when a drone passes overhead.

Assisting Ryckman were UND junior Cailey Isaacson and Susan Felege, associate professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at UND, who also is the students’ adviser. Felege’s husband, Chris, a UND biology teacher, and their daughter, Kaylee, who was 2½ years old at the time, also were onsite.

Susan Felege, associate professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at UND, spent two to three days a week last summer at the central North Dakota research site, along with husband Chris, a UND biology teacher, and their daughter, Kaylee, who was 2½  years old at the time. (Photo courtesy of Susan Felege/ UND)
Susan Felege, associate professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at UND, spent two to three days a week last summer at the central North Dakota research site, along with husband Chris, a UND biology teacher, and their daughter, Kaylee, who was 2½ years old at the time. (Photo courtesy of Susan Felege/ UND)

The crew also spent time on the site in 2019, but the summer of 2020 was the first season of experimenting with drones on a broad scale. The findings will serve as the subject for Ryckman’s master’s thesis, “Protocols and Best Practices for Breeding Waterfowl Surveys Using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.”

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“We focused mainly on behaviors, largely because we wanted to say, ‘If these birds aren’t behaving normally, then this tool isn’t going to work,’” Felege said. “We don’t want to disturb wildlife, especially in the breeding season, and so you want to make sure you’re not negatively impacting things.

“Next is developing those protocols to get better estimates, and how do you do that. That’s where we’re kind of at now.”

Various techniques

Ryckman and the research team monitored some of the sites using conventional on-the-ground survey techniques and evaluated duck behaviors using GoPro cameras attached to spotting scopes and miniature surveillance cameras set near known nests. That allowed them to compare whether ducks behaved differently around the drones than ducks that were not exposed to drones.

For the nesting study, they looked at duck behaviors in response to both fixed wing and quadcopter UAVs flying about 260 feet and 115 feet over the nests.

For the pair study, they flew a UAV 150 feet over a wetland, knowing they could identify ducks by species at that altitude, while also seeking to find out if the ducks would alter their behavior, making them hard to count.

In both cases, the UAVs were fitted with cameras of various types to determine their effectiveness at sensing the birds.

“There’s been some research out there showing good luck detecting waterfowl using drones, but we were looking at, ‘So how are these ducks behaving as this drone is flying above them on the wetlands?’” Ryckman said.

With only a few exceptions, the drones didn’t flush hens off their nests, but ducks often tilted their heads upward. Ducks on the water sometimes swam to heavier cover.

As seen through a spotting scope, a duck tilts its head upward (left) in response to a drone passing overhead. (Photo courtesy of Susan Felege/ UND)
As seen through a spotting scope, a duck tilts its head upward (left) in response to a drone passing overhead. (Photo courtesy of Susan Felege/ UND)

“A lot of the birds seem to really hold still when the aircraft is up in the air,” Felege said. “That’s likely kind of an anti-predatory response that we might be seeing. They’re holding still, like, ‘OK, what’s that, and is it coming and should I be worried?’

“They’re probably almost positioning themselves in case they have to flush if it’s a predator.”

Ducks galore

The study focused on blue-winged teal and gadwalls, and 2020 was a record year for both species on the two sites, Ryckman said. During the course of the summer, the research team found 363 duck nests using a combination of nest-dragging techniques – which involves dragging a 100-foot length of chain between two ATVs to flush ducks off their nests – and drones with thermal cameras.

As a venue for duck research, it doesn’t get much better than the Coteau and Davis ranches, which cover about 10,000 acres between the two sites. Both are managed for wildlife habitat, Felege said, with grazing on the DU land and a combination of grazing and prescribed fire on the TNC site.

Chris Felege scans a wetland last summer while helping out with a duck research project in central North Dakota. Habitat conditions were excellent, and the research crew tallied record numbers of ducks. (Photo courtesy of Susan Felege/ UND)
Chris Felege scans a wetland last summer while helping out with a duck research project in central North Dakota. Habitat conditions were excellent, and the research crew tallied record numbers of ducks. (Photo courtesy of Susan Felege/ UND)

“You’re in the heart of the Prairie Pothole Region, you’ve got those wonderful wetlands all around you, and it’s managed and maintained (for wildlife),” she said.

If drones ultimately prove to be an effective research tool for finding nests, their use could provide a habitat-friendly alternative to the standard nest-dragging technique, said Kyle Kuechle, wetlands research scientist for DU’s Great Plains Regional Office in Bismarck.

“(Nest dragging) has been used forever in waterfowl research, and it works, but with some known caveats,” Kuechle said. “We don’t know if we get every nest, and ATVs are an impact on the landscape, so if you’re up on the ranch, especially where we’re getting a lot of vegetative growth at that time of year, you can really start to see ATV tracks in these plots.

“Clearly, if we are able to use drones in the future, that’s something we don’t have to worry about – we take out some of the risk associated with driving ATVs across the plots. … There’s some hopeful signs that we’ll be able to use drones in the future, but I guess time will tell on that.”

COVID-19 impact

As it did with everything else on the planet, the COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on the 2020 field season. Work on conducting pair surveys began in April, when spring semester still was in session, and the UND crew spent long days two or three times a week driving from Grand Forks to central North Dakota and back because housing wasn’t available, Felege said.

The COVID safety protocol required student researchers to drive separate vehicles while Felege, husband Chris and daughter Kaylee could travel together because they lived in the same household.

Quite the little helper, Kaylee Felege does her part filling out a data sheet last summer while in the field with her parents, Chris and Susan Felege of the UND biology department faculty, who were helping out with duck research in central North Dakota. Kaylee was 2½ years old at the time. (Photo courtesy of Susan Felege/ UND)
Quite the little helper, Kaylee Felege does her part filling out a data sheet last summer while in the field with her parents, Chris and Susan Felege of the UND biology department faculty, who were helping out with duck research in central North Dakota. Kaylee was 2½ years old at the time. (Photo courtesy of Susan Felege/ UND)

“We had a train of vehicles that would leave Grand Forks, plus usually someone joining us from DU, just to get a team of three or four people out there,” Felege said. “But we did a really great job at being very effective at collecting as much data as we could in a power-packed amount of time throughout the day.

“You got out of your vehicle and you hit the ground running.”

Once the field season hit full swing, Ryckman lived in a camper onsite, Isaacson stayed in a house about 20 miles away in Arena, N.D., and the Felege family stayed in a hotel in McClusky, N.D., on the two or three days a week they helped out in the field.

“We were all in separate housing, but we made it work,” Felege said.

Going into the field season, Isaacson, a junior from St. Michael, Minn., said she expected to be one of four technicians assisting Ryckman in the field. Instead, she was the only one because of the COVID-19 restrictions.

That resulted in some long days in the field, said Isaacson, who also worked on the site in 2019.

“We still ended up having to do the same amount of work, so that was a little bit challenging” with fewer people, she said. “You lose a little bit on the team camaraderie with that. Instead of graduates mentoring one another and getting to know each other, it was me by myself and then Mason by himself.

“We didn’t really have high expectations for the summer at first, just because of all the challenges that went along with trying to be safe with COVID, but it went awesome; we had an insane number of nests.”

The success of the field season was a testimonial to the teamwork of everyone involved, Felege said.

“I think people bonded and really came together where things needed to happen,” she said. “We had fewer people, they had huge workloads, everybody held their own and everybody worked together and everybody was just really team-based.”

Last summer marked the sixth season of collaboration between DU and UND, and it’s a partnership they both look forward to continuing.

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“They help us collect some data that we don’t otherwise have the personnel to collect so that’s key,” said Kuechle, the DU wetland scientist.

At the same time, students get real world experience that helps them launch their careers.

“That’s what it’s all about, and that’s what conservation is about,” Felege said. “It’s those partnerships, it’s about teamwork.”