By Nick Simonson
Aside from the hundred or so doves perched on powerlines and tucked along the tall summer sweet clover hanging over the edges of the gravel road, there wasn’t much upland activity to talk about on this particular day of the summer roadside survey intended to count developing broods of pheasants and other upland game. Conditions were ideal, with moderate to heavy dew in the field grasses, a bright orange sun lighting up a clear sky, and virtually no wind to speak of. Despite the perfect setup not producing the broods of small pheasants we were on the lookout for, RJ Gross, Upland Game Biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department (NDG&F), had plenty of good things to say about the agency’s annual summer endeavor as we cruised along the gravel road south of Judson where we eyed just a single rooster along a pocket slough, stepped out and flushed a solitary partridge behind a line of hayed grass, and observed a lone sharpie set atop a hay bale.
“We’ve already seen more adult pheasants, more young, and more total birds at this point in the survey than at this time last year,” he remarked optimistically at the unofficial tally, adding, “but it seems like there’s no middle ground, you either have a brood of eight, or a brood of two,” detailing the action on the recent route days he had cataloged.
Started around 1957 with just a few dozen routes throughout the state, the NDG&F summer roadside brood survey is an operation that spans all divisions of the agency. It is the department’s largest survey operation and an all-hands-on-deck program with wardens, biologists, staff and many other employees being assigned one or more of the 105 approximately 20-mile-long routes winding through known pheasant habitat. Along the way, at a speed of about 20 mph, agents look for adult pheasants and juveniles in a variety of stages of growth and document their findings, keeping a tally of other birds they see, including Hungarian partridge and sharptailed grouse, along with rabbits, squirrels and the occasional note about interesting wildlife encountered. When a brood is sighted, the surveyor will exit the vehicle and enter the ditch grass and clap, attempting to flush the group for a better count. The survey acts as an indicator of pheasant populations and recruitment and has served for 60 years as a summer guidepost for upland hunters looking forward to fall.
“North Dakota’s data set is the gold standard,” Gross commented enthusiastically about the pheasant benchmarking program, “our program is the same as it has been since the 1950s and a long-term data set like that is something researchers drool over,” he concluded, referencing the fact that while the paper tally is still used, much of the program has evolved to utilize GPS and application technologies which have developed over the past two decades.
Leading the Way
It is that data set, and the processes behind it, which are helping to lead the way toward a future of statistically sound sampling of pheasants and upland birds throughout 13 states participating in a cooperative effort to produce a uniform survey program. Focused on the studies of Eugene Konglan pertaining to environmental factors affecting the appearance of pheasants and broods in roadside surveys, Dr. Adam Janke, Assistant Professor at Iowa State University, works closely with Gross and other biologists from the participating states, including North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Idaho, to expand on the findings of the studies from more than six decades ago through a pilot program hoping to create uniformity across surveying pheasant states. As part of the National Pheasant Plan – a multi-state cooperative similar to the efforts used to monitor waterfowl – it is hoped that the program will lead to a more accurate way of measuring upland bird populations across agencies.
“The goals are to improve the state monitoring routines for pheasant populations so we can make comparisons across multiple states and also make comparisons through time, to be able to know how accurate a state monitoring effort was 20 years ago or 30 years ago based on weather conditions,” Janke stated, adding that among those conditions, the most important and heavily stressed by the Konglan study was dew accumulations, and the pilot program builds on that.
Utilizing a wooden dew block with a painted top placed in the grasses and forbs in an approach at the start of the route, surveyors like Gross compare the patterning of the moisture accumulated on the smooth surface to a field chart with nine levels, then absorb the water with a pre-weighed paper towel and re-weigh it on a field scale to gauge the amount of moisture collected. Weather conditions are also recorded at the beginning of the route. At the end of the survey route, a second block and its dew contents are examined and weighed. It is the dew-related data which Dr. Janke states is perhaps the most important factor in determining how many broods and total birds will be seen on a route and will ultimately help agencies like the NDG&F produce more accurate survey numbers as a result of their efforts. Additionally, the pilot program will help states find the happy medium in how often route surveys are conducted.
“Lots of states use this late summer monitoring [for] pheasant populations, bobwhites and huns, but they’re all kind of done in a different way in every state: the way data is collected is different, how long the routes are, what time of year they’re driven, the environmental conditions under which they’re driven are different,” Janke stated, adding that variability in the number of times each route is run is something being looked at, “Kansas runs them five times a year…in contrast, in Iowa, we only run them once, and we try to get a good weather day with good dew conditions; we want to figure out what factors are contributing to variability in the pheasant population index.”
It is that drive for uniformity that has Gross excited and talking between the occasional deer and numerous mourning doves that cross our path as we wrap up the hour-and-a-half-long trip from Bismarck and back as he references the results of the survey and the pilot program. The routes utilized by the NDG&F have changed only a little over time, with notable recent shifts coming from rising waters particularly along a route near an inundated Lake Oahe Wildlife Management Area, one of the 3 pheasant routes assigned to Gross. Throughout his 10 years with the NDG&F, he has become accustomed to seeing broods in the same spots each summer, with a certain rise and fall of road or parcels of good habitat being consistent producers of observable young birds that make their way into his log book or the new mobile application which provides real-time relay of the numbers back to Dr. Janke and other participants, where connectivity in the rural landscape allows.
“We’re averaging over five birds per brood on our routes right now, and in the heyday [of the mid-2000s] it was in the sixes, and after the drought [in 2017] it was in the threes,” Gross related, “so when you get into those averages between five and six, things are looking pretty good.”
With a relatively stable source of funding through Pittman-Robertson dollars bolstering the pilot program across the 13 cooperating states, it is expected to continue into the coming years to help provide even more consistency and give Gross and other biologists the heightened ability to track, trend and share this season’s results and future ones. The North Dakota roadside brood survey tallies will be released to the public in September after the program wraps at the end of this month. Until then, Gross, Janke and dozens of other surveyors will continue to watch the numbers come in, optimistic for not only another successful autumn afield for hunters, but also for the future of pheasants and other upland game through more precise surveying, monitoring and the management tactics which will result.
Featured Photo: RJ Gross flushes a Hungarian partridge from a ditch on a roadside survey route south of Judson on Aug. 8. Simonson Photo.