By Published On: August 26, 2014

Inaugural Washington Waterfowl Surveys to Guide Working Lands Conservation

Conservation partners in the Channeled Scablands are developing solutions for working landscapes to protect and enhance both wildlife habitat and the region’s agricultural way of life.

This spring, biologists and volunteers across seemingly arid eastern Washington took to land and sky to better understand how migrating waterfowl use the area, particularly on private lands. Over 70 percent of the wetlands in the Intermountain West are privately owned, and the Channeled Scablands are no exception. By keeping the land in agriculture, farmers and ranchers protect these large, unbroken tracts, preserving open space for habitat, wildlife, and wetlands. However, threats to wetlands still exist. Wetland loss to land conversion continues; climate, land, and water uses are changing; and water supplies are finite. All have detrimental impacts on wetlands and wetland-dependent wildlife.

Partners have identified critical data gaps that need to be filled in order to achieve landscape-level conservation goals. One of these gaps is spring migratory waterfowl data. In other words, we need to understand more about the numbers and habitat use of ducks, geese, and other birds during spring migration, to guide us in implementing conservation measures in the right places.

Until now, no one has performed large-scale surveys in eastern Washington on bird abundance, distribution, habitat use, species composition, and migration chronology. This will aid land managers in quantifying this area’s value during spring. From February to April 2016, the first-ever spring migration waterfowl surveys were performed in the Channeled Scablands, and partners are excited about the initial findings.

“As soon as the ice started melting at the beginning of February, the ducks started showing up,” said Lindell Haggin, a member of the Spokane Audubon Society. “Four weeks after the survey began, the number of waterfowl had more than quadrupled. That is an intense, massive movement of wildlife that requires a wide distribution of wetlands/potholes to accommodate their numbers.”

These surveys took place by air using fixed-wing planes for aerial surveys, and by ground using driving routes and point locations. The covered area included parts of Lincoln, Spokane, Adams, and Whitman counties. Partners in the first year’s survey included Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), Ducks Unlimited, Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, and volunteers from Friends of Turnbull, Eastern Washington University, Gonzaga University, and Spokane Audubon Chapter.

“The waterfowl migration surveys gave us the first glimpse into the timing and extent of the migration and the key habitats being used in this unique landscape,” said Michael Rule, Manager at the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge. “Although we have always felt this area, with its amazing density of wetlands, is important to migratory waterfowl of the Pacific Flyway, seeing the wetlands full of ducks, geese, and swans throughout the spring was gratifying.”

Funding for the aerial surveys came from a WDFW Migratory Bird Stamp and Artwork Program grant. The IWJV supported these surveys with a capacity grant to begin landowner outreach activities. The IWJV’s grant will partially fund a biologist to nurture partnerships, establish relationships with private landowners, and develop proposals to fund habitat acquisitions and easements for wetland conservation throughout the Channeled Scablands.

This was the first year of a four-year survey. The preliminary data is being analyzed. It will help the Washington State Conservation Partnership better understand how birds use this landscape, with the ultimate goal of working more effectively with landowners to accomplish strategic habitat protection and restoration.

“With year one surveys complete, we were able to verify and improve on our survey methods and technique,” said Matthew Wilson, Waterfowl Specialist with WDFW. “The Channeled Scablands displayed a diversity of habitats and species that is difficult to appreciate until seen from the air. This survey underscores the importance of protecting the region.”

The survey data is being analyzed and will help the Washington State Conservation Partnership better understand how birds use this landscape, with the ultimate goal of working more effectively with landowners to accomplish strategic habitat protection and restoration. Photos by Tina Blewett.