A few seconds of chaos and counting yielded the largest single brood of pheasants Ryan Tebo has ever observed on a wildlife survey Thursday.
The highlight came at mile 20 of route three in Olmsted County of this year’s wildlife survey last Thursday. Tebo, assistant area wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, spots birds on the side of a road. One is obviously bigger than at least one or two. He stops the truck and peers through his binoculars.
“We have pheasants,” he said.
As Tebo slowly drives his truck toward where the birds are standing, it’s clear there are more — many more.
At least three young pheasants’ heads are seen occasionally surfacing from the roadside grass as they dart though the ditch parallel to the road. Two more ahead of them briefly jump from the ditch and into a cornfield. The three others follow.
In some areas, pheasants can be rousted from the roadside grass either into the air or onto the road for a more accurate count. In this case, the corn provided an escape.
“Corn rows are like race tracks for pheasants,” Tebo said.
Some blurry photos and recollection leads Tebo to conclude he had spotted a hen and a brood of five chicks — about six to eight weeks old.
The morning survey began with Tebo stopping his truck on a gravel road in rural Olmsted County, Ryan Tebo stepped out of the vehicle and swiped his foot across the dewy roadside grass.
His boot was damp with dew and the first rays of morning sunlight were peeking over a cornfield to the east.
“We passed the first test,” he said. “We can officially conduct the survey.”
Wet grass means wet birds. Wet birds prefer to be dry and will come out in the open to sun themselves.
“(The birds) aren’t always keen on sitting in those damp areas,” Tebo said.
Birds in the open can be counted. Conservation and wildlife staff across the state scoured miles of rural road keeping their eyes open for notable wildlife for the annual August roadside wildlife survey. One of their main species of interest in the survey is pheasants.
The recent winter of extreme cold and record breaking snowfall followed by spring flooding might have been hard on the birds, Tebo said.
“We had a lot of crazy weather during their nesting season,” Tebo said.
Loss of habitat has also been a stress on populations.
“In general the loss of grasslands has been astounding,” he said. “The amount of habitat is pretty limited.”
Tebo and other wildlife and conservation specialists will comb more than 150 25-mile routes at sunrise in every county in Minnesota through Aug. 15.
“Finding five days where conditions are good can be tough,” he said.
They begin at dawn. If weather is clear with morning dew, officials drive about 15 to 20 miles per hour and scour the roadsides for signs of pheasants, whitetail deer, gray partridge, sandhill cranes and other notable wildlife.
Tebo is responsible for two routes in Goodhue County and three routes in Olmsted County.
The survey has been conducted every year since 1955. Until this year, it’s been conducted in the same way. Staff from the Farmland Wildlife Research Unit near Madelia sends data packets for conservation and wildlife officials to fill out by hand and mail back to that office for tabulation.
This year, wildlife specialists are trying an electronic counting system. Tebo will be able to tabulate and immediately upload the results of his survey.
“Hopefully that means we can get a clearer picture sooner,” he said.