A thick fog enveloped Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer Bob Geving’s pickup truck last Saturday morning as he consulted his map.
“The turn should be someplace right up here,” he said as we crept along Highway 68 east of Judson in the pre-dawn.
A few yards ahead, a township road materializing out of the fog that had erased all visual reckoning points.
There were a few more twists and turns along this gravel road until we climbed out of the river valley and the fog gave way to crystal clear skies.
At an intersection and after one more check of his map, he climbed out of the truck and surveyed the sky. He leaned over to touch the roadside vegetation that hung heavy with dew. “Perfect conditions for the survey,” he said. “Heavy dew, clear sky, no wind.”
Geving was conducting what since 1939 has been an annual ritual for many DNR conservation officers and wildlife managers in Minnesota.
During early August, the DNR conducts a comprehensive roadside wildlife survey by having COs and wildlife managers drive about 130, pre-determined, 25-mile routes through farmland Minnesota to count the numbers and species of wildlife seen along the way.
While the counts have been focused mainly on determining the relative abundance of pheasants, biologists use the results to determine the state of other wildlife as well.
At sunrise, map and survey sheet in his lap, binoculars on the dash, Geving put the truck in gear and rolled along at a leisurely 15 miles an hour, looking for pheasants that had moved to the gravel road to escape the heavy dew.
During the 2011 surveys, Geving said only handful of pheasants were counted on the routes he drove, an outcome that wasn’t unexpected given the severity of the previous winter and a cool, wet spring that hampered nesting.
But this year, after an exceedingly mild winter and a warm, relatively dry spring, there is optimism that pheasants might regain at least some of the ground they lost the previous year.
However, at least on this route, things weren’t too encouraging. In spite of perfect census conditions, Geving spotted only one pheasant — a lonely rooster — at mile 17 southwest of Lake Crystal.
At mile 21, three hen wild turkeys and their mingled broods of a dozen or so poults eased out of the path of the approaching truck and melted into the roadside vegetation.
Two miles later, three toms — two of them sporting paint brush-thick beards — dashed across the roadway.
But otherwise, except for the scores of mourning doves that loafed in the roadway or on utility lines along the route, that was the sum total of wildlife tallied.
Certainly, it would be unrealistic to expect that the dramatic losses suffered during the winter of 2010-12 would be made up in a single year of more favorable weather.
And admittedly, this particular route was lined with row crops and many ditches that had been mowed — hardly optimum pheasant habitat.
But the route also ran along several Federal Waterfowl Production Areas and Wildlife Management Areas that had excellent cover.
Not to tally a single brood of pheasants was, in a word, disheartening.
There’s always a chance the results were an anomaly. Perhaps a vehicle had traveled the route minutes before, scattering any pheasant broods back into the thick cover.
Or that in spite of Geving’s scrutiny while creeping along the township roads, perhaps a brood escaped detection.
The results of Geving’s survey, along with others, will filter back to the Farmland Wildlife Research Unit near Madelia where the numbers will be crunched to determine the state of pheasants for the upcoming hunting season.
And in a few weeks, the DNR will release the results of the annual exercise.
But whatever the outcome, when it comes to hunting pheasants in Minnesota, there is always one certainty — along with a shotgun and some shells, it’s always a good idea to carry a good supply of optimism.
John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.