HOLDREGE — During a few weeks each year, the population of Funk increases by hundreds of thousand of residents. Bird residents, that is.
The migratory birds travel through the area along the Central Flyway, and many of them stop at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Funk Waterfowl Production Area to rest and eat before moving on. Funk is the largest of 62 public use areas known as Waterfowl Production Areas in the Rainwater Basin. Funk has been the headquarters for the WPAs since 2009. The Funk WPA extends across three miles with three pumping stations delivering water to seven units.
“What we do is we get most of the birds traveling from, and when I say birds that can be anything from raptors, eagles and hawks — all those are migratory birds — to ducks and geese, cranes obviously are pretty big around here. Most of those hang out on the river and the Platte River basin, but there are a few that come through here. The big numbers of birds that we support actually are white-fronted goose. Those are also called speckled bellies to a lot of the locals,” said USFWS Rainwater Basin Project Leader Brad Krohn.
Other commonly sighted birds that migrate through the WPA are mallards, pintails, shorebirds and wading birds.
“We get 90 percent of the mid-continental population, which is a phenomenal amount of birds, coming right through here,” Krohn said. “We see all those birds that come down here in the winter and come back through, and then they go up here to breed in the spring, summer. Then return back through in the fall. Each way, they are coming right through here. We get huge pushes of just enormous amounts of birds, like you see the snow geese coming through. It’s just absolutely amazing.”
The goal for the employees at the WPA is to feed the birds as they go from their breeding grounds to their wintering grounds and vice versa. The wetlands in the Rainwater Basin in the Central Flyway typically are the only place the birds could find water and an abundant food source.
“For the most part on their return trip, we are trying to feed them so they can survive and sustain and have better eggs, have a better chance of raising those clutches,” Krohn explained. “Really, they are not here that long. So when they are here, our duty is to make sure they get fed properly, have a great diet and just get all their needs and caloric intake and are good to go for the rest of the way.”
Krohn and his team work to preserve and restore the wetland areas in order to provide natural, nutritional food for the birds. In the 1930s and ’40s, there was a decline in many of the bird populations that prompted the government to restore the wetlands to help bring their numbers up, Krohn said.
“Our biologists monitor populations, and they do a lot of the neck collaring and banding so they can sample those birds and hear back from folks and get an idea if those patterns are still realistic and keep up on the numbers of that,” said Krohn. “Bird populations are fairly stable. There are a few that seem to fall here and there, but they will bounce back and go back down a little bit. For the most part, they seem to be sustainable.”
One way to control bird populations is by adding extra hunting seasons for species whose numbers are getting too high. The WPA is open for licensed hunters to hunt on the grounds during open season. There also are many other opportunities for the public to enjoy the area including photography, bird watching and hiking trails. Spring and fall often are the busiest times of year at the WPA.
“Duck and pheasant season seem to be the most popular. Deer season is pretty popular as well. That’s our highest use is fall,” Krohn said. “We are really here for the spring migration. It’s our big numbers. Right now is our busy time, really starting as soon as the weather breaks.”
During the spring, the staff will supplement water from irrigation wells into the wetland areas to provide more opportunities for the birds coming through. In March and April, Krohn and other firefighters work on prescribed burns in the WPAs in order to reinvigorate the grasslands.
“Really supporting the prescribed burn programs is always exciting. We have a couple of firefighters that come in and work annually here. What they do is they help us out with these prescribed fires, and they also support the bigger picture of the Mountain West when you hear about the big wildfires,” Krohn said.
Despite not having a visitor center, Krohn and the staff work to provide educational opportunities to neighboring landowners, visitors and students. They sponsor the slingshot booth and provide educational information at the Fort Kearny Outdoor Expo on May 12 at Fort Kearny. Having the WPAs used as outdoor classrooms is one of many hopes Krohn has for the areas in the Rainwater Basin.
“We just do our best to try to teach conservation and promote that, and if people are treating the land properly, being good stewards of the land, that’s really what we are after,” Krohn said. “We would love to see these places used as outdoor classrooms and whatever we can do we try to help out where we can.”