Past projects

Evaluation of an Aerial “Grid” Waterfowl Survey along the Illinois River

Traditional aerial surveys conducted along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers provide an index of population size rather than an actual population size.  New methods may allow researchers to determine actual population sizes within our survey area along with estimates of variance.  However, changing to a new methodology may have implications for the use of 65 previous years’ worth of index counts.  Thus, we are conducting a new “grid” survey following each traditional survey to ensure that we maintain a relationship between the new estimates and those from previous years.  Each week, we will conduct aerial surveys of approximately sixty 1-sq mi “grids” within the Illinois River floodplain from Hennepin to Meredosia, IL.  These grids will be randomly placed within the study area and will include portions of traditional “core” survey locations (e.g., Chautauqua NWR, Rice Lake, Meredosia NWR, etc.) and other “random” survey locations (e.g., drainage and levee districts, Anderson Lake, Pekin Lake, etc.).  The aerial grid surveys will be flown each week following the traditional inventory-style aerial survey. Click here for more information.

Seaducks on the Great Lakes

“Seaducks on the Great Lakes”

Staff Lead: Chelsea Kross

In collaboration with Principle Investigator Beth Ross (USFWS), and Co-Investigators Michael Schummer (SUNY-ESF), Jacob Straub (The College at Brockport), Shannon Badzinski (Environment and Climate Change Canada) and Doug Tozer (Birds Canada)

Sea duck use of the Great Lakes, particularly the Lower Great Lakes (Lakes St Clair, Erie and Ontario), during spring migration, fall migration and winter has increased considerably over the past few decades. Limited information about sea duck abundance and distribution in the Great Lakes region, as well as the connectivity of the Great Lakes population to other populations hampers harvest and habitat management and conservation. Commercial and energy development on the lake shore and on the lakes themselves along with changes in water quality, contaminants, and outbreaks of diseases all threaten sea ducks and require sound baseline knowledge about responses to environmental and habitat changes. Moreover, climate change will increase extreme weather events, precipitation, and temperature, resulting in large shifts in habitat availability for sea ducks. We propose developing species distribution models to inform stakeholders about habitat use of sea ducks on the Lower Great Lakes. We will make use of existing datasets by combining data (e.g., aerial and ground count surveys) into integrated species distribution models for multiple species or species groups of interest. Our model will link underlying population abundance with habitat and environmental covariates in the Great Lakes region. We will then use the model to simulate future population abundance under different climate change scenarios, such as reduced ice coverage, increased water temperature, and more variable ice conditions. These models will also allow us, through sensitivity analyses, to identify the factors that contribute most to uncertainty in these models, and which could be addressed through a formal adaptive management program whereby changes in where and when surveys take place are made and tested to determine if uncertainty has indeed been reduced in the model output in locations where reductions in uncertainty are most needed. Additionally, we will work with stakeholders to develop monitoring designs using output from the integrated species distribution model to build a framework for future potential survey approaches. The outcomes and products we anticipate from this work include species-specific maps of past/current distribution/abundance as well as maps for future climate scenarios, evaluation of stakeholder feedback based on potential monitoring designs, and information to contribute to the Sea Duck Key Habitat Sites Atlas. Any potential future monitoring efforts will have important information on key habitat and areas in the Lower Great Lakes for sea ducks as well as information about the greatest data uncertainties for populations of non-breeding sea ducks.

Ecology of spring-migrating Canvasbacks and Lesser Scaup in the central Illinois and Mississippi River Valleys

Habitat quality for diving ducks during spring migration may affect body condition and reproduction during the breeding season. Recent evidence suggests wetlands associated with the Illinois and Mississippi River Valleys—historically important stopover habitats—provide limited seed and invertebrate biomass for waterfowl. Substantial use of this region by spring-migrating lesser scaup (Aythya affinis) and canvasbacks (A. valisineria) warrants assessing the quality of these wetlands as foraging habitats and comparing results with other body condition and food availability studies in the Upper Midwest.

We located and surveyed flocks of lesser scaup and canvasbacks during spring 2014 and experimentally collected individuals to evaluate body condition, contaminant loads, food use and selection, and parasite loads. Further, we collected blood samples for metabolite analysis to determine if birds were building lipid reserves and fecal corticosterone samples to monitor stress levels.

Comparison of these results with concurrent food availability estimates will help determine if current indicators of habitat quality (i.e. biomass of food items) are actually related to condition and subsequent fitness of individual foragers.


England, J.C., J.M Levengood, J.M. Osborn, A.P. Yetter, C.D. Suski, R.A. Cole, and H.M. Hagy. 2018. Associations of intestinal helminth infections with health parameters of spring-migrating female lesser scaup (Aythya affinis) in the upper Midwest, USA. Parasitology Research 117(6): 1877–1890.

Merrill, L., J.M. Levengood, J.C. England, J.M. Osborn, and H.M. Hagy. 2018. Blood parasite infection linked to condition of spring-migrating Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis). Canadian Journal of Zoology 96(10):1145–1152.

Body composition, intestinal parasite loads, and blood parameters of spring-migrating Lesser Scaup in the upper Midwest

Conner England is a Graduate Research Assistant for the INHS and is attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has a B.S. in Wildlife and Fishery Science from the University of Tennessee. His current research focuses on the body condition, blood parameters, and effects of intestinal parasite loads on the health of spring-migrating lesser scaup and canvasbacks. Infections by parasitic trematodes appear to be having an increasingly important impact on the health of wildlife populations. Recently, infections of the trematodes (Cyathocotyle bushiensis and Sphaeridiotrema globulus) through ingestion of the second intermediate host, the faucet snail (Bithynia tentaculata), have caused mortality of lesser scaup in the upper Midwest. These parasites, in conjunction with declines in diving duck foraging habitat, are believed to be a key factor in the recent declines in lesser scaup populations. The goals of Conner’s research are to determine sub-lethal trematode loads, examine duck body composition and blood parameters, and compare these findings with other metrics of duck health and wetland condition for lesser scaup and canvasbacks.

An assessment of aquatic invasive plants in the Illinois River: water hyacinth surveillance, mapping, persistence, and potential seed dispersal

Jay VonBank is a Graduate Research Assistant for the INHS and is attending Western Illinois University. He has a B.S. in Aquatic Biology-Fisheries from Bemidji State University. His current research focuses on invasive water hyacinth in the upper Illinois River/Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS). Water hyacinth forms dense mats of vegetation on the surface of slow-moving waterways and backwaters restricting commercial and recreation traffic, outcompeting native vegetation and affecting natural biogeochemical and evapotranspiration cycles. Regular reoccurrence of water hyacinth represents a significant threat to the recreation, fisheries, and wildlife resources of both the Great Lakes and the Illinois & Mississippi River basins. The goals of Jay’s research are to document the current distribution of water hyacinth, compare water hyacinth seed densities and frequencies in the seed bank, assess Common Carp and Grass Carp diets to determine water hyacinth seed dispersal potential, and to develop an aerial survey technique for the surveillance of water hyacinth.

Breeding bird use of wetlands managed for waterfowl in Illinois

Kristen Walter is a Graduate Research Assistant for the INHS, and is attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has a B.S. in Biology from Central Michigan University, and has done avian field work in California, Oregon, Michigan, and Illinois. Her current research is focusing on the way grassland birds use moist-soil wetland habitat that is managed for waterfowl. Many guilds of breeding birds are declining in population, and grassland birds are no exception. A key assumption of several conservation planning documents is that some non-wetland bird habitat and population objectives can be accomplished by fulfilling waterfowl habitat objectives. Quantifying the benefits of moist-soil vegetation managed for waterfowl to other wildlife, specifically other birds, will help guide development of IDNR land management strategies and the Illinois Wetlands Campaign documents.

Ecology of fall-migrating mallards in the Illinois River Valley

We investigated migration ecology of mallards utilizing the Illinois River corridor during fall 2009–2010. We radiomarked 142 mallards (86 females, 56 males) along LaGrange Pool of the Illinois River with backpack transmitters during autumn. We estimated a minimum daily movement distance of 3.9 ± 0.2 km among wetlands. Females flew 2.6 ± 0.2 km to evening foraging areas. Mallards utilized many wetland basins during their stay and home range size was 17,575 ± 1,506 ha. We located mallards on wetlands available for hunting (i.e., not designated as refuge) for the majority (79.6%) of diurnal locations. Forty-four of 142 (31 %) radio-marked mallards perished during their stopover period in LaGrange Pool, and 77% of mortality was directly due to hunting. Correspondingly, males and females were observed on refuges only 20.4% and 20.3% of their daytime locations, respectively. Results from this study were published in 2014:
Hagy, H.M., Yetter, A.P., Stodola, K.W., Horath, M.M., Hine, C.S., Ward, M.P., Benson, T.J., Smith, R.V., Stafford, J.D. 2014. Stopover duration of mallards during autumn in the Illinois River valley. The Journal of Wildlife Management 78(4):747–752; 2014; DOI: 10.1002/jwmg.708.

Foraging ecology of fall migrating shorebirds in the Illinois River Valley

Populations of many shorebird species appear to be declining in North America. Causes of the declines are not fully understood but because shorebirds migrate very long distances each year, availability of food may be important to survival and reproduction. The Illinois River valley contains critical habitats where shorebirds stop during migration. In fact, Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge was designated a World Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network site and may host 100,000-250,000 shorebirds during fall. Despite the importance of the region, little is known about the ecology of foraging shorebirds in Illinois. To address this research need, we collected 4 species of shorebirds (Pectoral and Least Sandpipers, Lesser Yellowlegs, and Killdeer) during falls 2007 and 2008 to identify foods they ate and evaluated their body condition. Additionally, we took core samples from wetlands to identify abundance of invertebrates that shorebirds may have consumed. Results from this study were published in 2012:
Smith, R.V., Stafford, J.D., Yetter, A.P., Horath, M.M., Hine, C.S., et al. (2012) Foraging Ecology of Fall-Migrating Shorebirds in the Illinois River Valley. PLoS ONE 7(9): e45121. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045121.

Estimation of moist-soil plant seed abundance for waterfowl on public lands in Illinois

Moist-soil management is employed throughout the U.S. to provide managed habitats for waterfowl and other waterbirds that are rich in food resources. Because much of Illinois contains critical habitat for migrating waterfowl, moist-soil management is a common waterfowl management practice in the state. Many IDNR sites practice moist-soil management, yet their combined contribution to foraging carrying capacity for waterfowl is not known. This study was designed to estimate moist-soil plant seed abundance and generally evaluate quality of moist-soil habitats on public lands in Illinois. Results from this study were published in 2011:
Stafford, J.D., Yetter, A.P., Hine, C.S., Smith, R.V., Horath, M.M. 2011. Seed abundance for waterfowl in wetlands managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management 2(1):3–11; e1944-687X. doi: 10.3996/092010-JFWM-034.

Historical and contemporary characteristics of Illinois River Valley wetlands: a geospatial database for conservation planning and evaluation

In recent years, numerous restoration projects have been initiated in the Illinois River floodplain. Information on historical conditions of floodplain wetlands and investigations of change in conditions over time would provide valuable information to guide the restoration and planning process. To address these information needs, we created a geospatial database of historical wetland conditions in the Illinois River valley from maps created by Dr. Frank C. Bellrose and INHS staff during 1939–1959 and re-mapped 15 of these wetlands using modern techniques during 2005–2006. We analyzed these data to identify changes in wetland conditions over time and factors influencing use of IRV wetlands by mallards and diving ducks based on aerial inventories. Results from this study were published in 2010:
Stafford, J. D., M. M. Horath, A. P. Yetter, R. V. Smith, and C. S. Hine. 2010. Historical and contemporary characteristics and waterfowl use of Illinois River valley wetlands. Wetlands (2010) 30:565-576.