Ducks Unlimited recently joined the University of North Dakota (UND) to provide biology students with experience and school credit through a summer research project on the Coteau Ranch, a 3,000-acre property owned and restored by DU. The interns spent the summer monitoring blue-winged teal nests using surveillance cameras to study nesting behavior. DU biologists and UND Assistant Professor Dr. Susan Ellis-Felege instructed and supported the students during the project.
The interns discovered between three and 15 nests a day by dragging a chain across grassland between two four-wheelers to flush nesting hens. After each hen gave away her nest’s location, the students installed cameras and collected and monitored footage.
DU Manager of Conservation Planning Kaylan Carrlson says that one of DU’s goals for the project was to prepare students for future biological careers. “It is tough to get any natural resources job,” she said. “We thought it would be great to give students an opportunity to come out to the ranch and get some experience.”
UND junior Nickolas Conrad and sophomore John Palarski swapped out the cameras’ memory cards every three or four days. They also stored the videos on hard drives and uploaded them to the project’s web server. The students recorded tens of thousands of hours of footage that would take years to analyze if not for the help of volunteers.
The nest cameras are part of Wildlife@Home, a project led by the UND Citizen Science Grid and created by Ellis-Felege and Assistant Professor Dr. Travis Desell. Citizen Science Grid utilizes public participation to handle the challenging amount of data gathered by researchers. Volunteers sign up for a free account online and analyze footage as it is uploaded. Their observations aid the research team and are compared with the results of Desell’s algorithms to see if video analysis may one day be computer automated.
Carrlson says the involvement of volunteers is another reason DU was interested in the project. One of the goals of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan is to increase public participation in conservation. Wildlife@Home allows DU to facilitate that.
Conrad and Palarski will present their findings this fall at a wildlife conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “Working with DU has been very rewarding,” Palarski said. “Tanner [Gue, DU conservation specialist] and Kaylan have been great mentors to us and have taught us so much.”