Outdoors: Table is set for migrating ducks (video)

U.S. Fish Wildlife Service Ranger Ed Legace helps Annie Scaife determine what kinds of plants that were pulled up from the bottom of Big Lake near Wabasha last week.



High water takes toll

Water celery and other plants needed for migrating ducks when they come into Lake Onalaska took a hit, apparently from high water.

The U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service sampled the Mississippi River backwater north of La Crosse, Wis., last week with seven boats. While final numbers aren't yet compiled, it appears the lake, known for it thousands of canvasbacks stopping there, has less vegetation, said Ben Walker, a service student intern.

Water celery, which canvasbacks feast on, "is not as common, but where it is is much more dense." For example, one sample had 365 stems, while 100 is considered good, he said.

Emergents such as arrowhead are probably down a little, he said. He suspects high water last fall and continuing throughout this year has clouded the water so not as many plants grow, he said.

On the other hand, vegetation in Pool 8 further downriver is great, he said.


WABASHA — Annie Scaife got her first close look at a Mississippi River backwater last week and was impressed.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologists hope waterfowl feel the same way when they migrate through the Mississippi River Valley this fall.


Scaife, who will be a senior at Rushford-Peterson High School, was on a job shadow to learn about a biologist's work when they sampled vegetation in Big Lake across the river from Wabasha. They have been going back to the same spots in the backwater for several years to see how well emergent and submergent plants are doing. Tubers of arrowhead, lotus and water celery are critical foods for the ducks and geese.

The service opened Nelson-Trevino Bottoms above the Nelson Dike Road to hunting two years ago and closed part of Big Lake, which is below the road, so more diver ducks, such as canvasbacks and bluebills, have a quiet place en route to places further south. "We didn't have any area here to keep diver ducks where they weren't getting hunted," said Mary Stefanski, Winona District manager of the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge.

Sampling is done to check on how plentiful the food will be when they come.

If biologists see a major decline, they can adjust closed area boundaries to protect places with more food or even seek a summer drawdown of the lower part of Pool 4 to encourage more emergents, she said

Some hunters didn't like the closed area change, but it really helps them, she said. If hunting was allowed, ducks would quickly leave, but with a refuge, they stay longer and there's a chance they will break the line where they can be shot.

Scaife joined the two in a johnboat and was whisked through the maze of channels on the upper part to get to open water.

The river is up about 3 feet, Legace said, and that might hurt some plants like lotus. If they grow above the water and are then flooded, they can get a brown blight, he said. The heat also hurt, he said. Because less light gets through deeper, muddier water, submergents might be less plentiful, he said. Invertebrates (bugs) and even dragonflies seem to be less common, he said.

But there was only one way to find out about the plants  — take samples.


Scaife watched Refuge Ranger Ed Lagace and Biologist Brian Pember use a long rake to pull in submerged vegetation at one site inside a big bed of arrowhead and lotus. They didn't find much, but that was expected. (They later went to a site in the open and pulled out a lot more water celery and other plants.)

After they did a few samples, they gave Scaife the rake.

"Go ahead Annie, rake to your little heart's content," Legace said.

She pulled and tugged to get through narrowleaf arrowhead, which she quickly learned to call "narrow arrow." Out came a rake with a lot of emergents and some submergents like coontail and elodea. Before Legace and Pember pulled off the arrowhead, they showed her the small tuber beginning to grow on them. That's what the ducks, geese and swans like, the energy-rich tuber.

They looked around to determine abundance of narrow arrow, lotus and white water lilies.

The last thing was for Legace to pull up the anchor that was thick with "Mississippi boot-sucking mud."

When she was done for the day, Scaife had a sunburned nose, a ride in an airboat, more knowledge of how rivers work and a feeling that ducks are going to like what they will see on Big Lake.

Stefanski was also optimistic. Despite the high water and the problems it can create, vegetation has been improving in the lake since 2003. For example, places with no vegetation dropped from 17 in 2003 to two last year. Sites with greater densities of vegetation rose from three to 27, but water celery remained relatively stable.


Waterfowl counts show a dramatic rise in the number of days ducks, geese and swans used Pool 4 since the change in the closed areas.

Though the backwater is a lush green now, when the major waterfowl flights come through in a few months, emergents will have lost their leaves and the water will be much more open, she said. But they will find the tubers and other foods.

Her one major worry is that wild rice, which ringnecks feast on, is taking a big hit from the bouncing river levels because the plants will have a hard time producing seeds.

But overall, waterfowl "aren't going to blow through here. It's a bountiful spot right now," she said.



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