A Step by Step Guide to Conducting Duck Surveys & Enjoying Ice Cream with Your Fellow Interns

A field dispatch from SCA member Elizabeth Braatz, currently serving as a Career Discovery Internship Program intern for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I have never identified ducks before. Nor have I ever driven a UTV (Utility Task Vehicle), searched for Karner blue butterflies, or sloshed through wetlands in knee-high boots with a clipboard. Yet in the first few weeks of my SCA internship at beautiful St. Croix Wetland Preserve, I got to do all of these things, as well as meet awesome seasonal interns and full-time staff.

To rewind slightly, I am a sophomore at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities studying Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. I first heard about pathways internships with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) through my wonderful advisor in Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences. After a long search and lots of paperwork, I eventually found myself driving to my new internship with SCA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

The first weeks have certainly been a learning experience. After a brief orientation and shopping for safety supplies, we began doing duck surveys on Wildlife Production Areas, or WPAs, in St. Croix and Dunn counties. WPAs are small pockets of public land protected and set aside so that wildlife, especially wetland birds, can nest and thrive. Although small, these wild oases provide ducks crucial bits of habitat.

Statistically, Minnesota the third greatest state in the country for duck hunting*, so our surveys would help the FWS manage this important species and fulfill its mission to “working with others, to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.”

To conduct a duck survey, I discovered that one must take the following steps:

  1. Gather knee high rubber boots, a survey sheet, a pencil, water, and binoculars
  2. Apply bug spray, because the ticks here are numerous and ferocious
  3. Drive to the WPA; this can be very easy if you bring someone who’s familiar with the area or very difficult if you’re a newcomer driving solo
  4. Hike out to a beautiful pond
  5. Peer through your binoculars to look for ducks
  6. Exchange celebratory comments if you see lots of ducks, or duck species other than Mallards
  7. Express mild disappointment if you see no ducks
  8. Check your pants for ticks
  9. Check your shirt for ticks
  10. Check your friends for ticks
  11. Repeat steps 1-10 at the next WPA

It is tiring. It is time consuming. It is, without a doubt, one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever had. The WPAs are beautiful, full of native grasses and singing birds. It’s great being able to drive through the country and suddenly find this little gem of natural habitat. I enjoy watching wildlife and being out in nature, so it’s like we’re being paid to go out and have fun doing what we already like doing in our free time. You never know what treasure you’ll find. On one WPA trip we found hundreds of tiny tadpoles in a vernal pool.

Tons of tiny tadpoles!

On another trip one of my sharp eyed coworkers noticed wild lupine growing along the side of the trail. We paused to explore and found what we think was an extremely rare Karner blue Butterfly in its caterpillar stage.

We suspect this camouflaged caterpillar will soon transform into a rare and dazzling Karner blue butterfly.

On every trip, we get to learn more about our awesome fellow interns. I’ve learned that Sarah and Asher are great at identifying plants, that Earl knows the area like the back of his hand, and that Colleen has traveled to a lot of cool places. I’ve learned that Bailey is a pro at talking to the public about the FWS and also knows the best place to pick strawberries. I learned that Amanda is a fellow cook, and I’ve heard from a couple coworkers where to go for the best ice cream in town (pictorial proof below).

Whether it’s learning about duck species, driving through St. Croix and Dunn counties, finding out what dozens of acronyms mean, or enjoying delicious ice cream with a coworker, my summer internship with the FWS and SCA is off to a great start.
[pic me and Allison, ice cream]

*Laux, Deb. “5 States with Great Waterfowl Hunting Property.” Whitetail Properties. John Deere, 1 July 2015. Web. 7 June 2015.