With the buildup of ice and potential damage to trees as they begin to flex and potentially snap under the excessive weight, I had a couple “disturbing” thoughts. In the last few years we’ve almost seen it all, floods, drought, ice storms, and even blizzards. These natural events provide a degree of disturbance to natural systems. As one set of species is displaced another set are ready to respond and take advantage of new resources.
Floods are an easy example and something we can actually see. For example in 2011, we went out and sampled quite a few fish, salamanders, tadpoles, sirens, and bugs that were out and about and eating each other within the flooded forests of Duck Creek. During less historic events in the spring and fall, we often see waterfowl and shorebirds utilizing flooded areas. In fact, our management often simulates these natural events to capitalize on the bird use for public hunting opportunity.
Granted, ice storms aren’t the first thing to come to mind when you think about habitat management. These are isolated events that don’t occur every year. However, the effects of branches snapping endure and add to the long term forest structure. Light can penetrate to the forest floor and encourage seedlings that may now be released with a new canopy opening. Also, the damaged tree over time may heal and develop cavities that will become home to a variety of forest critters.
Hooded mergansers are one of my favorite forest dwellers. It is this time of year that they begin to select cavities to nest in for the year. In isolated flooded sloughs you’ll see the male strutting around with his brilliant white crest on display and his drab gray and brown girlfriend paddling nearby. These Missouri breeders rely on the occasional icy disturbance to make sure there are enough “houses” on the market each spring.
This fall we received several band returns of our locally produced hooded mergansers. It is quite amazing the age and distribution of these harvested birds. A young bird that hatched out of a nest box in 2011 was harvested this January across the river at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge. Earlier this fall we received a band return from a crusty old bird harvested all the way up in Minnesota. It lived to the ripe old age of 10, which is about the extent of a hooded mergansers life expectancy. Needless to say, we were surprised last month when we received another band return of an even older bird. This merganser was harvested down south in Webster Parish, Louisiana. Before becoming gumbo, this bird was hatched out and banded in the Mingo Basin in 2000 and lived a fish-full life of 13 years.
Often times I think about habitat conditions and waterfowl production seasonally or annually. However, this recent weather event and subsequent “disturbing” train of thought illustrates how we benefit from the long-term cycles of natural systems. An ice storm fifty years ago created the right conditions for a cohort of tree cavities, which has helped produce a number of hooded mergansers and wood ducks over the last 30 years. While some of these birds didn’t make it very long or very far, others have flown up and down the flyway for years before ending up in the bottom of a pot with rice and a medley of other ingredients. Amazing or disturbing, I guess that depends upon your perspective.