NEAR BRAINERD, MINN. - To a duck, the Ray Cook Wildlife Management Area (WMA) must look particularly attractive.
On the north end is a beautiful marsh. Thick cattails are interspersed with patches of open water large and small. The south end is occupied by what most would call a lake. In reality, it's a huge shallow wetland roughly a half-mile long by a quarter-mile wide. Between the marshes is a grassy field and willow lowland. Duck heaven.
Several pairs of ring-necked ducks nest in the emergent vegetation surrounding the big wetland. So do Canada geese and a pair or two of sandhill cranes. Wood duck boxes on tall poles are located along the shoreline.
As pretty as the wetlands are, most savvy outdoor people recognize that puddle ducks -- such as mallards and blue-winged teal -- nest on dry land, usually in the grassy uplands surrounding marshes. When their eggs hatch, the hens move their broods to nearby marshes.
I thought about that last week as I watched approximately 40 acres of grassland and lowland willow -- the terrain between the wetlands -- go up in smoke.
"Our primary purpose for burning the Ray Cook WMA is to create and improve nesting habitat for waterfowl and other upland species," said Gary Drotts, an area wildlife manager stationed in Brainerd. "If we don't burn periodically, brush and trees invade the grasslands. Nature is never static."
The burn area consisted of 20 acres of prairie, 13 acres of alder and willow lowland, and seven acres of oak/aspen forest.
According to Drotts, burning grasslands suppresses the cool season grasses and helps eliminate woody shrubs and trees, while at the same time stimulating the more desirable warm season grasses such as big bluestem. The tall prairie grass is less likely to flatten under the weight of the snow, thus providing better nesting and brood-rearing conditions for waterfowl and other ground-nesting birds come spring. Burning the alder and willow increases the heartiness of forbs and shrubs, providing forage and cover for ruffed grouse, woodcock and deer.
Preparation for the burn began last fall, when a crew of Conservation Corps Minnesota (CCM) workers cut and mowed fire breaks. During winter a burn plan was drawn up. It was just a matter of waiting for the appropriate weather conditions.
"Smoke is one of our biggest concerns," Drotts said. "We had to wait for the right wind direction that would carry the smoke in a direction least offensive to area homes."
Of course, moisture conditions and wind speed are concerns. If the fuel (grasses, shrubs and trees) are too dry, or the wind is gusty, a burn is potentially dangerous. If conditions are too wet, or the air very humid, the fuel won't burn.
A crew of 10 people handled the burn. Four were from the DNR division of wildlife, two from the DNR division of forestry, and four were CCM workers. Each was outfitted with protective gear. The crew was in constant radio contact with one another.
Marty Anderson, assistant area wildlife manager, was the burn boss. He instructed two ignition specialists who used drip torches to start the fire in the downwind corner of the WMA. Anderson also constantly monitored the smoke dispersal, wind speed, humidity and temperature. Two tracked all-terrain vehicles were employed in case the fire jumped a line. The vehicles also carried extra water and fuel for the drip torches.
The burn was well-planned and executed. Within two hours, the 40 acres were charred black. For a brief time, the WMA might look bleak. However, with the frequent spring rain we've experienced, and some sun, the big bluestem grass and various forbs will quickly sprout lush and strong, offering improved nesting conditions and foraging for wildlife in the future.
Bill Marchel, an outdoors columnist and photographer, lives near Brainerd.