Volunteers Improve Wood Duck Habitat at Allegan SGA

We only get so many Saturdays in July, and in Michigan, there’s plenty to do. We can go to Great Lakes beaches, go fishing, barbecue or get some much-needed lawn maintenance done. For 36 people on the last Saturday of July, though, that meant volunteering their time to improve wood duck nesting habitat at the Allegan State Game Area.
Volunteers met at the Fennville Farm Unit Office, known locally as the Todd Farm. This is one of Michigan’s seven managed waterfowl units, and during waterfowl season hunters flock here to hunt geese, mallards and wood ducks. There are three wildlife refuges in the 50,000-acre Allegan State Game Area which ensure that waterfowl return here year after year, providing  great opportunities for hunters during the season.
Erv DeWeerd repairs a wood duck box, one of 59 checked, cleaned and repaired by volunteers. Erv DeWeerd repairs a wood duck box, one of 59 checked, cleaned and repaired by volunteers.
Scattered throughout the refuges and the rest of the game area are wood duck boxes, which mimic the cavities in dead trees in which wood ducks make their nests. Wood ducks don’t gather their own materials for nests, instead they rely on the wood shavings dropped into the cavities by woodpeckers. Pine shavings are used for nests in wood duck boxes, which must be cleaned and replaced every few seasons.
So on Saturday, July 27, 36 volunteers gathered to clean, repair, replace and install new wood duck boxes, as well as to record observations about usage of boxes and what animals were using them. Volunteers brought their own boats, canoes, waders and tools and were supplied with pine shavings, nails, box tops, new boxes, bug repellant and hornet spray, which was much-needed in some of the areas.
Boxes were located in the Kalamazoo River, Crooked Lake, the Kalamazoo River Bottoms, off 112th Avenue, and in the Swan Creek - Highbanks and Bravo Unit Wildlife Refuges.  Volunteers divided into teams to tackle the different areas and to install new wood duck boxes in the Ely Lake Flooding and the Palmer Bayou. In some areas, just getting to the boxes was a large part of the work, as boxes were accessible only after a long drive down a narrow backwoods two-track and paddling a canoe or jonboat through thick wetland vegetation, or by slogging through a knee-high flooding in hip boots or chest waders.
The rain held off for the workday, though, and the hard-earned wetland views were well worth the tough travel. Volunteers saw mallards, blue herons, sandhill cranes, red-wing blackbirds and numerous other wildlife species with the midday sun dancing off the shallow water. A group of Cub Scouts – Thomas Perigo, Mason Duff, Parker and Tristan Schuyler and Connor Reiss - even helped out DNR wildlife biologist Mark Mills on the Swan Creek Wildlife Refuge as they progressed toward their World Conservation Badges.
A Cub Scout enjoys a soda at the post-workday barbecue. A Cub Scout enjoys a soda at the post-workday barbecue.
Megan Chludzinski, a graduate Entomology student at Michigan State University, helped supervise the Cub Scouts with Keith Sebright, Jason Schuyler and Charles Reiss. “We had fun cleaning out wood duck boxes with MUCC out in the Allegan State Game Area today,” she said. “We took some Cub Scouts out with us and met some great people.”
In total, volunteers checked, cleaned and repaired 59 wood duck boxes and installed five new ones. Additionally, the field data gathered by volunteers will help the DNR determine where wood duck boxes can be located in the future to maximize their usage.
“This work wouldn’t have been done without volunteers,” said Mills. “The wood ducks won’t use the nests unless they’re cleaned out every so often, and we simply don’t have the staff time to do it.”
Will Wissink paddles through thick wetland vegetation to reach a wood duck box Will Wissink paddles through thick wetland vegetation to reach a wood duck box
Most of the volunteers were waterfowl hunters who hunt the Allegan State Game Area or are from the region, including Rich Kolk and Phil Witten of the Macatawa Bay Waterfowl chapter of the Michigan Duck Hunters Association, Wayne Dial of the South Kent Sportsmen’s Club, and Jack and Judy VanRhee of the Hamilton Rod & Gun Club, who cooked hamburgers and hot dogs for all the volunteers. All the volunteers, that is, except Patrick Tubergen, Nicholas Wilson, and Bill and Emma Hecht, who cleaned so many wood duck boxes and worked so long on the Kalamazoo River that by the time they returned, the barbecue was over!
Bill Hecht, who volunteered with his daughter Emma, hunted waterfowl for the first time on the Fennville Farm Unit back in 1978. “I got my first goose here,” he said.
Phil Gzym, who volunteered with Rod Matson, said that doing a project like this was on his bucket list. “I’m semi-retired and I was looking for an opportunity like this, a chance to give back.”
Some volunteers came from much farther away, like Patrick Baruth and Dylon Elsholz of Marine City, Michigan, who also signed up for the Harsen’s Island project coming up on August 17.  Brandon Larson of Grand Rapids is the first repeat volunteer for the Michigan On-the-Ground program, which is the public-private partnership between the DNR Wildlife and Fisheries Division and Michigan United Conservation Clubs to organize habitat projects like these. Brandon also volunteered at the first project building brush piles for rabbits and other small game at the Gratiot-Saginaw State Game Area in March.
DNR biologist Mark Mills talks to volunteers about additional opportunities at Allegan SGA. DNR biologist Mark Mills talks to volunteers about additional opportunities at Allegan SGA.
Saturday’s volunteers included Bill and Emma Hecht, Jack and Judy VanRhee, Patrick Tubergen, Will Wissink, Brandon Larson, Phil Gzym, Rod Matson, James and Austin Sloan, Rich Kolk, Phil Whitten, Nicholas Wilson, Josh Thomas, Keith Sebright, Megan Chludzynski, Thomas Perigo, Mason Duff, Jason, Parker and Tristan Schuyler, Charles and Connor Riess, Patrick Baruth, Dylon Elsholz, Kevin, Caleb and Nate DeVries, Erv DeWeerd, J.B. “Doc” Blough, Wayne Dial, Calvin, Tracy and Levi Ross, and Mark Mills.
“The volunteers were amazing,” said Drew YoungeDyke, grassroots manager for MUCC, who organized the project with Mark Mills. “I hope every waterfowl hunter and birder in West Michigan gets a chance to thank them for giving up their Saturdays to improve wood duck habitat.”
The project was part of the Michigan On-the-Ground program, which is sponsored in part by a grant from the Consumers Energy Foundation, Outdoor Life's Open Country, and the Michigan Waterfowl Legacy. The next Michigan On-the-Ground wildlife habitat project is this Saturday, August 3, at the Somerset State Game Area in Hillsdale County. Volunteers will be clearing rocks, roots and branches from fields so they can be planted with a clover mix. Email dyoungedyke@mucc.org with the subject line “Food Plot” to volunteer.

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