By Published On: August 15, 2015

Measuring Migratory Waterfowl through Citizen-based Science

Many folks that live in the Flathead Lake area of northwestern Montana look forward to the annual melting of valley snow and the opening of our waterways and wetlands. One of many visible changes to the landscape, this spring thaw signals the first flights of Tundra Swans, Canada Geese and other migrating birds. 

But these days, the presence of these birds is being watched closely due to the loss of critical habitat associated with growing communities and associated development pressure. 

Like many areas of the Intermountain West, there is a dynamic relationship between the agricultural lands of the Flathead Valley and the migratory birds that rely on spring flooding through the migration season.  This vital habitat has been identified by local conservation partners as a conservation priority.  Efforts are underway to understand how migratory birds are using these agricultural lands.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MTFWP) and local partners have designed and coordinated a multi-year bioenergetics monitoring project to quantify the number and species of migratory waterfowl that move through the Flathead-Smith Valleys each spring.

 “We hope to measure how important this area is to migratory waterfowl as they make their way north to their nesting grounds,” said Gael Bissell, a biologist for MTFWP.

Based on the first year of monitoring, the area sampled has yielded waterfowl use days for Mallard, Northern Pintail, Canada Goose, American Widgeon, Common Goldeneye, Tundra Swan, Snow Goose, and Red-Head, which can then be extrapolated over the watershed.  Project partners intend to expand and test the model in 2013 to continue to understand how waterfowl are using various habitats.  This data will then be used to inform conservation action in the valley through cooperative efforts such as the Rivers to Lake Initiative.

“The data may supply the extra nugget of information that makes funding applications from the Flathead more competitive and successful,” said Laura Katzman, Land Protection Specialist for the Rivers to Lakes Initiative.  “MTFWP’s efforts may also lead us to key areas where Flathead Land Trust can make contacts to hopefully initiate land protection projects important to migrating birds in the Flathead.”

One of the key challenges the project has faced is the lack of funding for staff or volunteers.  As a result, Bissell stated, “We turned to the valley’s premiere birders and other wildlife agencies and organizations and they stepped up to the plate.”

Part of that volunteer force came in the form of many energetic high school juniors and seniors. Hans Bodenhammer, a Bigfork High School teacher, reached out to MTFWP and his students agreed to undertake the most tedious job of entering thousands of waterfowl data points and summarizing the results.

“We believe if we can give real world experiences to young students, they will continue to pursue these interests in college,” Bissell said. “GIS skills are absolutely essential for tomorrow’s wildlife biologists.”

The project also relied on the contributions of extremely qualified birders from Flathead Audubon, American Bird Conservancy, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  The Intermountain West Joint Venture helped by providing recommendations on project design. For more information on the Flathead River To Lake Initiative; visit or contact Gael Bissell, MTFWP at (406) 751-4580 or