Looking to increase waterfowl, wildlife habitat? (Keeping the Farm)
(Editor’s note: Chase Colmorgen is a Farm Bill biologist with Ducks Unlimited.)
Winter has arrived.
For most agricultural operations, the cold weather slows down field activities.
However, for waterfowl such as the American black duck, winter signifies increased activity as birds migrate south from breeding grounds to more favorable habitats in their wintering grounds.
Quality habitats in the wintering grounds are crucial not only to ensure ducks and geese can sustain themselves through winter, but for enabling them to acquire the energy needed as they prepare for migration back to the breeding grounds in the spring.
Habitat loss and degradation are chief among the factors hypothesized to have contributed to black duck population declines of greater than 50 percent between the 1950s and 1980s.
Although at reduced numbers, American black ducks continue to utilize habitat on the Delmarva Peninsula heavily during winter.
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service is looking to increase and sustain black duck populations and has identified priority areas in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia for restoring and protecting black duck habitat.
Increasing habitat for waterfowl, deer, and other wildlife while maintaining viable agricultural operations and supporting recreational opportunities like hunting is the vision for the Graves family’s farm in Milton, Del.
One of the family farm managers, Kenny Hopkins, has been working to help carry out the family’s vision for years.
Working to enhance wildlife habitat on active farmland came with its own set of challenges.
“Years ago, we had a guy come out who did some work to dig ponds (freshwater waterfowl impoundments) deeper, which inadvertently backed water up into otherwise productive agricultural lands and the fields just never drained like they were supposed to,” said Hopkins.
Those challenges didn’t deter Hopkins from the vision of increasing wildlife habitat while having an active farm.
His plan included expanding the shallow water areas from two or three acres to a 15-acre area.
As a result of its proximity to Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, primarily salt marsh, Graves Farm is an ideal habitat for the American Black Duck.
This species prefers habitat that is a combination of salt marsh, freshwater and brackish wetlands, and tidal flats along the Atlantic Coast.
Increasing habitat for black ducks also benefits other waterfowl and more than 30 other wildlife species.
Hopkins contacted the NRCS for additional technical and financial assistance for this wildlife restoration project and agricultural drainage concerns.
Hopkins consulted with Delaware Soil Conservationist Bobby Gorski and me, who shared available options for NRCS technical and financial assistance.
Delaware NRCS was able to offer financial assistance to implement the NRCS-approved design through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program’s Working Lands for Wildlife Program.
Prior to releasing funds, the project area underwent a comprehensive cultural resource review to ensure there were no threats to cultural resources — such as historic areas or objects.
The restoration was then implemented by a local consultant, Orion Land and Wildlife Management.
The process lasted approximately one year, which is longer than normal, but Hopkins said it was “worth the wait.”
“Shortly after the project was completed in June 2020, we had a nor’easter in early July that brought about six inches of rain in one day,” said Hopkins. “So, the next morning I rode up there, and there wasn’t any water laying in the swales or ditches. All the water had drained to the impoundment like it was supposed to.” Hopkins has previously seen where a storm like that would have previously flooded his farmer’s crops and the hot weather would have just scalded and killed them.
Hopkins is pleased with the project and is looking forward to this years’ hunting season.
“I hope the wetland will entice a lot of waterfowl to visit the farm,” said Hopkins. “We won’t overhunt it. We have a couple areas where we don’t hunt, where waterfowl can go in and rest, eat and drink the freshwater.”
Interested landowners throughout Delmarva are encouraged to contact a local USDA Service Center, or me to learn more about protecting, enhancing, and restoring wildlife habitat on their agricultural or forest lands.
I can be reached at 302-245-3235 or email@example.com.