Thursday, February 9th, 2023
Thursday, February 9th, 2023

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Drought could result in spring pond shortages

By Tim
Spielman

Associate Editor

Bemidji, Minn. — If temporary ponds are the welcome mats for
northbound ducks in the spring, Minnesota may be more of a
pass-through than a destination.

That’s because drought conditions exist nearly statewide. Water
levels were low entering winter, and snowfall nearly everywhere is
below average. In fact, Duluth’s snowfall as of early this week was
3 feet below average, according to Pete Boulay, of the DNR’s
climatology office. Other locations, too, are severely lacking.

It’s not just snowmobilers who will feel the effects.

Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist in Bemidji, said
significant snow or rain is necessary in March and April to create
proper nesting conditions – a collection of temporal wetlands along
with the semi-permanent basins and lakes.

“We’re really dry right now across the state,” Cordts said. “I
don’t know how much that could improve with snow in March or rain.
I just know it’s dry and we’ll take anything right now.”

Low water levels has its benefits. For example, low water and
cold temperatures might combine to winter-kill duck
habitat-destroying fish species like carp and bullheads, in shallow
lakes. Further, Cordts said, low water gives aquatic vegetation a
chance to grow in places where seeds submerged beneath water had
lay dormant. More vegetation, besides providing food for ducks,
also provides cover for invertebrates, increasing their abundance.
That, too, provides ducks with another food source.

But ducks need places to nest, and places to stage during their
spring migration.

“Generally by March we start to see some early migrants heading
north,” Cordts said. In April, birds are settling in to the places
they intend to drop eggs.

If an area is dry, some ducks will nest in larger,
semi-permanent water holes. Others will fly north. Still others
will attempt to nest in unsuitable areas.

Cordts said blue-winged teal are a species that continues north
until finding good habitat. Mallards have stricter “homing”
tendencies. Each of those species comprises about one-third of the
state’s breeding populations. A variety of other ducks make up the
other one-third.

Last year at this time, some locations were reaping the benefits
of heavy rains during the fall of 2005. Carryover in “natural,”
non-drained areas can last through winter, Cordts said. It also
retains its beneficial nature when it falls on semi-permanent water
bodies.

But this year, most of the state was dry upon the arrival of
winter. And winter hasn’t added much precipitation to the
landscape.

Duluth isn’t the only place low on snow. In International Falls,
snowfall is about 31 inches below normal, according to the state’s
Climatology Working Group. The Minneapolis/St. Paul area is 27
inches below normal, and St. Cloud is about 26 inches below
normal.

“The story this winter was that precipitation was significantly
confined to southern Minnesota,” Boulay said. “The storms usually
were from the Twin Cities, south.”

Still, even Rochester and Sioux Falls are about 8 inches below
their winter snowfall average.

The best way to replenish seasonal duck ponds would be to
receive steady, above-average levels of rain and snow, Boulay
said.

“Timely rains and some snow would be nice,” he said. “But we
have to far exceed the average (to catch average levels).”

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