News Story

‘I love ducks’: Students follow migration on cross-country field trip

Posted on 5/9/2009 by Chris Young
The State Journal-Register

At the very least, a group of students from Mississippi State University traveling north through the United States will gain an appreciation for the grueling twice-a-year migration undertaken by birds.

And these kids won’t even have to flap their arms a single time. They’ll spend the entire 3,461 miles traveling together in a van owned by the school.

"And (early next week) we’ll be marathon-driving 17 hours back to Mississippi," says Richard Kaminski, the veteran Mississippi State professor who set up the field trip to end all field trips.

Most of the students are focused on waterfowl and wetland conservation—although efforts to protect game birds such as ducks and geese also help a variety of birds and other wildlife.

They made their first stop in Missouri on Monday. Then, on Tuesday, the class of 14 visited The Nature Conservancy’s 7,100-acre Emiquon Preserve in Fulton County.

That night, students slept at the University of Illinois at Springfield’s Emiquon Field Station—much more comfy than floating on nearby Thompson Lake, where predators might lurk. A very light-coated coyote was seen circling the shoreline on Tuesday.

Josh Stafford of the nearby Forbes Biological Station of the Illinois Natural History Survey is a former student of Kaminski who has mentored more than 40 graduate students during his 26-year tenure.

And for this trip, Kaminski called as many former students as he could—including Stafford—to help set up the migration route that will take his class to the Mississippi River, the Platte River in central Nebraska and to the duck-breeding grounds in the Prairie Pothole Region of South Dakota and North Dakota.

It was a journey that waited until Kaminski had enough former students scattered around the country to make it possible.

"It’s a real privilege to migrate with this group on a trip I’ve wanted to take for 25 years," Kaminski says.

Gathered on the shore of a growing Thompson Lake at Emiquon, Stafford tells the students they will be observing survey scientists Aaron Yetter and Randy Smith sample for macro-invertebrates that provide food for migrating ducks.

Earlier in the day, Yetter and Smith got a head start, collecting damsel fly nymphs, several types of worms, mayflies, beetles and snails. All are food for ducks, and all were collected in water about 18 inches below the surface—mallard feeding depth, Smith explains.

Picture a mallard duck in the park with its tail tipped up in the air as it feeds below the surface. In the fall, migrating ducks feast on high-carbohydrate foods such as annual weed seeds and corn to provide energy for migration. In the spring, they switch to invertebrates as a source of protein to prepare for mating and brood rearing. Snails provide good duck food, and their shells provide calcium for egg production. The bodies provide protein and lipids.

Kaminski says students should learn the importance of migratory rest stops like Emiquon.

"They should be able to see the importance of nutrient- and energy-rich foods strategically located along the migration routes," he says.

While most ducks have moved on, Emiquon hosted American white pelicans, countless American coots, Forster’s terns and several herons and egrets on Tuesday.

Stafford told his former teacher that one of the most interesting things about Emiquon was the abundance of submerged vegetation. Diving ducks depend upon these plants, and studies show they have all but disappeared.

Stafford says that comparing new aerial images to maps created 60 to 70 years ago shows just how far the habitat had deteriorated.

"The rebound of submerged aquatic plants is probably the most exciting part, because they are just gone (about everywhere else along the Illinois River)," he says. "We knew we lost it, but we didn‘t know what a big impact it was."

Looking out over Thompson and Flag lakes, now covering more than 4,000 acres, Kaminski says today is an exciting time to be working in conservation and natural resources fields.

"I think that throughout your career you will have the opportunity to witness unprecedented conservation," Kaminski told Stafford. "I think we’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg."

"Climate change is the catalyst that got people thinking about global conservation. From here, the sky could be the limit."

Kaminski has worked his entire career to secure funding to perpetuate the study of waterfowl and other water birds. He now occupies the James C. Kennedy Endowed Chair in Waterfowl and Wetlands Conservation.

One thing he insists upon is a passion for the subject.

Before students boarded The Nature Conservancy’s pontoon boat for a tour of Thompson Lake, Kaminski had everyone introduce themselves and tell a little bit about the focus of their studies. Every so often, one of the students would conclude, "And I love ducks."

The rest of the group would laugh.

"It‘s a prerequisite," Kaminski says with a growing smile. "Before they enroll in this course, I ask, ‘Do you love ducks?’"

It is a question that has to be answered without hesitation.

"Yes, a lot," the student answers.

"OK, you‘re in."