NEW LONDON, Minn. — Roger Strand once loved October as the best month of all.
It’s when he could venture out to the wetlands and shallow waters of Kandiyohi County and point his shotgun at the ducks attracted to his decoys and calls.
Now April is his favorite month of the year. He watches over the waters with the same keen eyes for the arrival of wood ducks to the nesting boxes he built and maintains for them.
The first pair of 2021 already arrived, splashing down March 22 in a small patch of water on an otherwise still ice-covered kettle lake hardly a stone’s throw from his home.
“They made a beeline for the (nesting) box,” said Strand. They eyed it up from the water, and one turned to the other as if to say: “OK, there it is. We made it back,” he said.
This year Strand, a retired surgeon from Willmar who just celebrated his 85th birthday, will again watch over the comings and hatchings at nearly 100 nesting boxes. He keeps a record of each. Dating to his earliest boxes, he has records of how many hatchings each produced.
Most of the boxes are located on the Stoney Ridge Farm near Sibley State Park that is his home.
His father, Orrin Strand, purchased an 80-acre parcel of land here in 1952. “He bought it because he wanted a place where his children and grandchildren could always hunt ducks,” said Strand.
Today, it joins land he has protected by the Minnesota Land Trust. The land is a mix of hardwood trees, hills and small kettle lakes and wetlands, ideal habitat for wood ducks. It is part of the Alexandria Moraine that runs from north of Green Lake in Kandiyohi County through Douglas County and northwest to nearly Bemidji.
Roger Strand placed his first wood duck nesting box on this land in 1952 when he was a high school student. Hunters were being encouraged to provide the nesting boxes to help build up a declining wood duck population.
“When he is with the students his eyes just light up."
- Laura Molenaar
He put his first box up in a tree.
“I made every mistake you could think about,” said Strand.
Using a tree was the first of them. He returned later to find that a squirrel had made the box her nest. The body of the hen wood duck that the squirrel had killed was still in the box.
Strand would later become a member of the national Wood Duck Society and editor of its newsletter, the Wood Duck Newsgram. He and others helped develop and promote what are now called the “best practices” for wood duck nesting boxes.
The natural wood boxes are placed on metal poles about 6 feet high with a cone shaped guard that keeps four-legged predators including squirrels, raccoons and mink from reaching them.
The proliferation of these nesting boxes is credited with playing a major role in the comeback of wood ducks.
Strand’s contributions to this conservation success story only begins with the nesting boxes.
He is the very epitome of the citizen scientist, and his work has helped us better understand wood ducks as well as introduce many young people to a lifelong appreciation for science, according to Laura Molenaar. She is retired now from a career as an educator with the New London-Spicer school district. For over two decades Strand worked with her students to maintain nesting boxes and learn about wood ducks on the school grounds as well as at Stoney Ridge.
“When he is with the students his eyes just light up,” said Molenaar of Strand.
So do the eyes of the children. Starting in 1997, Strand began putting video cameras in the nesting boxes to watch and listen to the goings on in them. There’s no overstating how the opportunity to peer into this secret life fired the young students' interest in science.
Cameras provide new insights for science
This voyeur's look into wood duck life has provided some surprises. Stand once awoke in the middle of the night and turned on his camera monitor to peek at a hen and her eggs in a nesting box near his home. The shrill sound coming from his monitor woke up his wife, Kay, from a sound sleep.
The hen had “screamed” at her eggs, said Strand.
Not a total surprise to him. He’d been eavesdropping enough on his hens to know they often “talked” to their eggs.
He explained that scientists have long believed that ducklings begin peeping while in their eggs to establish synchrony. It makes it possible for them to hatch at roughly the same time. This assures that all the new ducklings can jump one-by-one from the nesting box and follow their mother to water and food.
Stand is now convinced that the hen initiates the peeping and synchronous hatching, like the conductor for an orchestra. He said a hen will start talking to her eggs as much as two weeks before the actual hatching. She becomes much more vocal in the two days before the hatch. “They are listening, learning her language,” said Strand of the ducklings still in their shells.
The cameras have also allowed him to watch as other wood duck hens sometimes drop in uninvited to nesting boxes, and leave an egg or two of their own behind. Strand said the established hen will often tolerate the intrusion and incubate the egg.
And like a pay-per-view boxing fan, he’s also watched some heavy duty bouts in the wood duck boxes. Beginning in the late 1980s, he’s watched as hooded mergansers have begun to compete for nesting boxes at Stoney Ridge. Sometimes competing wood duck and merganser hens do battle inside the box for squatter’s rights.
Eager for a new season's surprises
Strand is looking forward to the surprises he’s sure to witness this season, but he will be without the company of the love of his life, Kay. She died last August after nearly 60 years of marriage. He had devoted much of the past three years to her care.
They are parents to four children. True to Orrin Strand’s expressed desire all those years ago, it’s now the third and fourth generations of the family that are able to hunt ducks on these waters.
There is no way to estimate how many other young people have been introduced to duck hunting and other outdoor pursuits on these lands. Since 1983, Roger and Kay Strand have hosted Prairie Pothole Day here. It has attracted crowds of nearly 4,000. No admission is charged so that parents will bring their children to enjoy a wide range of activities, from climbing walls and dog dock jumping contests to trap shooting and archery.
Come September, Strand will be enjoying his other outdoor passion that rivals his love for wood ducks. He will be making a Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness trip with his son to mark what would have been the 61st anniversary of his honeymoon there with Kay.
Come October, he might just be out duck hunting once again, but know this. While he didn’t tell his hunting companions, on his last three duck hunting outings he didn’t put a shell in his shotgun. He wanted to be certain that any shooting opportunities belonged to his grandchildren.