Improved habitat conditions on the prairies this spring helped duck numbers reach the highest level in a decadeBy Matt Young
One of the most amazing aspects of waterfowl behavior is the birds’ ability to “home” back to particular breeding sites in the spring. In North Dakota, DU researchers once observed a banded hen pintail that returned to nest in the exact same place the bird nested the year before, building her new nest on the remains of the previous year’s nest. But unlike upland game birds, waterfowl also have the ability to move to new breeding areas in response to annual changes in weather and habitat conditions.
This year offers a good example of how the distribution of breeding ducks can shift dramatically from one spring to the next. In 2008, much of the Dakotas, Montana, and the Canadian prairie was dry. As a result, many breeding ducks simply bypassed the parched grasslands and settled farther north in the parklands and boreal forest, where wetland conditions were more favorable. In 2009, runoff from a heavy snowpack and frequent spring precipitation produced good to excellent waterfowl breeding habitat across the Great Plains states and parts of Prairie Canada. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) reports that the 2009 May pond estimate—the primary measure of wetland abundance on the prairies—was up a whopping 45 percent from the previous year’s estimate.
Waterfowl responded to the improved habitat conditions with a strong breeding effort, especially on the prairies. The total breeding duck estimate in the traditional survey area was 42 million birds—a 13 percent increase from the previous year and the fifth largest since surveys began in 1955. Four of the 10 most common duck species posted significant increases, and six species were significantly above the long-term average (see chart on page 51). Of particular interest to hunters, mallards had a breeding population of 8.5 million birds—up 10 percent from last year and the largest estimate since 2000. Canvasbacks made a strong comeback, surging by 35 percent from the 2008 level. Pintails also posted a significant increase but remained below the long-term average. In the eastern survey area, population estimates for the 10 most abundant duck species were similar to last year and long-term averages.
“Waterfowl hunters have good reason to be encouraged by this year’s waterfowl survey results,” says DU Chief Biologist Dale Humburg. “First, we saw large increases both in total duck numbers and populations of several common duck species in the traditional survey area. This suggests that survival of adult birds and recruitment of young birds have been adequate in recent years to sustain many duck populations. Second, we know that duck populations make their biggest strides when the prairies are wet. The combination of large numbers of breeding ducks and good wetland conditions on the prairies bodes well for waterfowl production and this year’s fall flight.”
But Humburg cautions that a larger fall flight doesn’t necessarily guarantee more birds in the bag for duck hunters. “As always, weather and local habitat conditions will have a big influence on the distribution of migrating and wintering waterfowl this year,” Humburg adds. “As we look forward to this waterfowl season, we should temper our optimism with the knowledge that a variety of factors—including just plain luck—will determine how many birds we see from our blinds.”
May pond counts and waterfowl breeding population estimates are compiled during extensive air and ground surveys conducted by the USFWS, Canadian Wildlife Service, and state and provincial wildlife agencies. These surveys are essential to managing waterfowl populations and setting annual hunting regulations. The following report provides an overview of the status of habitat conditions and waterfowl populations across key breeding areas in the United States and Canada.
The Pacific Flyway receives most of its waterfowl from the western United States and Canada, with the majority of the region’s ducks and geese coming from Alberta, Alaska, British Columbia, the Yukon, and other western states. In 2009, an estimated 3.3 million breeding ducks were surveyed across the grasslands and parklands of Alberta—a 22 percent decline from the 2008 estimate. Populations of all major duck species decreased in this survey area except for scaup, which posted a 63 percent increase.
DU Canada biologist Ian McFarlane reports that waterfowl production was fair to poor overall this year across southern and central Alberta. “Spring was generally dry across much of the province, and some areas of the parklands had the driest June in 50 years,” he says. “Southern Alberta received much needed rainfall in July, but the wet weather probably came too late to benefit most breeding waterfowl.”
Moving north, breeding duck numbers were similar to last year across northern Alberta, northeastern British Columbia, and the Northwest Territories. In Alaska and the Yukon Territory, total ducks declined 15 percent but remained 19 percent above the long-term average.
DU Canada biologist Brent Friedt says spring was colder than average across much of the boreal forest this year. “A late thaw delayed waterfowl breeding efforts by two to three weeks in some areas,” he says. “Despite the cool weather, our field staff observed good numbers of broods as summer progressed, suggesting that waterfowl production was fairly typical.”
In the western United States, the waterfowl production outlook was mixed. In California, just over 500,000 breeding ducks were surveyed this spring—similar to the 2008 estimate and slightly below the long-term average. Late spring rains improved waterfowl habitat conditions in parts of the state’s Central Valley, likely resulting in increased production of mallards and other waterfowl in these areas.
This was a good year for most Pacific Flyway goose populations. Generally favorable weather and habitat conditions in Alaska and the western Canadian Arctic should result in fall flights of cackling, white-fronted, and lesser snow geese and Pacific brant similar to or larger than last year.
The majority of Central Flyway waterfowl are raised in the Prairie Pothole Region, as well as in the western boreal forest and Arctic. In southern Saskatchewan, this year’s estimate of just over 8 million breeding ducks was down 10 percent from 2008 but remained slightly above the long-term average. Populations of canvasbacks, scaup, and green-winged teal increased, while wigeon, blue-winged teal, shovelers, and redheads declined. Mallard, gadwall, and pintail numbers were similar to last year in this important breeding area.
DU Canada biologist Dr. Michael Hill reports that late spring and summer rainfall improved water levels in many areas of southern Saskatchewan after the May surveys were completed. “Wetland conditions were generally good this summer across most of the parklands and in the southern Missouri Coteau,” he says. “In contrast, poor habitat conditions were present in the west-central region, which was quite dry. Below normal temperatures delayed waterfowl breeding activities in the province this spring, with peak hatch not occurring until late June. Given the late hatch and persistent cool weather, waterfowl production appears to have been fair overall in southern Saskatchewan this year.”
In the north-central United States, runoff from a heavy snowpack and frequent spring rains created excellent wetland conditions across much of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana. A total of 14.2 million breeding ducks were surveyed in the U.S. portion of the Prairie Pothole Region in 2009. In North Dakota, a record 8.2 million breeding ducks were surveyed this year, surpassing the previous record of 7.4 million ducks set in 2000. Duck numbers were also at a record level in South Dakota, soaring by 43 percent from 3.4 million birds in 2008 to 4.8 million birds this year. And breeding ducks more than doubled in Montana, increasing from 560,000 birds last year to 1.2 million in 2009.
DU biologist Dr. Scott Stephens reports that duck production appears to have been well above average in the Dakotas this spring. “Our research indicates that breeding ducks are especially productive during the first couple of years of a wet cycle following a prolonged drought,” he says. “This certainly appears to have been the case this year in the Dakotas. Our research crews found large numbers of duck nests this spring, and nest success appears to have been good overall. In fact, we had more than 100 nests hatch on some of our study sites, and duck broods were a common sight on wetlands throughout the Missouri Coteau. Frequent thunderstorms also maintained wetland habitats well into summer, so brood survival should have been good as well.”
In contrast, 2009 was a tough year for many Central Flyway goose populations. Harsh spring weather in the central Canadian Arctic and subarctic reduced production of lesser snow, Ross’s, and northern-breeding Canada geese. Midcontinent white-fronted goose numbers should be similar to last year, thanks to a good hatch in Alaska and the western Canadian Arctic.
The Mississippi Flyway receives most of its waterfowl from the prairies of the United States and Canada, as well as from Ontario, the Great Lakes states, and western boreal forest. In southern Manitoba, total duck numbers were up 12 percent in 2009 but were slightly below the long-term average. Populations of most duck species—including mallards, pintails, and canvasbacks—increased in the region this spring.
DU Canada biologist Mark Francis reports that despite favorable wetland conditions, duck production was slightly lower than expected in southern Manitoba because of harsh spring weather. “Cold temperatures, rain, and frost persisted during the latter part of May and early June, which coincided with the initial hatch of early nesting waterfowl,” he said. “On a positive note, a strong renesting effort was observed, and good numbers of late-hatched broods appeared in July. In addition, wet weather delayed haying operations, which should have also benefited renesting ducks.”
The outlook for waterfowl production was mixed in neighboring Ontario, which also had an unusually cool and wet spring and summer. “Wetland conditions were generally good to excellent across southern and central Ontario this spring, but sightings of early broods were limited,” reports DU Canada biologist Scott Muir. “Broods may have simply been more widely distributed across abundant wetland habitat, or nest success and brood survival may have been adversely affected by early flooding and cool temperatures. We had a typically prolonged breeding effort in the province, and numerous sightings of late broods in June and early July indicated that many hens successfully renested.”
Mallards and other waterfowl raised in the Great Lakes states (Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin) make up a large part of the harvest in the eastern Mississippi Flyway, as well as in the mid-Atlantic region. In 2009, an estimated 700,000 mallards were surveyed in the Great Lakes states, similar to the previous year’s estimate.
As in the Central Flyway, harsh spring weather in the Far North had an impact on many Mississippi Flyway goose populations. Among Canada geese, a smaller fall flight is expected for the Mississippi Valley, Eastern Prairie, and Southern James Bay populations. Fewer juvenile lesser snow and Ross’s geese are also expected in the flyway this fall, while white-fronted goose numbers should be similar to last year.
The majority of Atlantic Flyway waterfowl are raised in the eastern United States and Canada, with the exception of certain species such as canvasbacks and redheads, which are largely produced on the prairies. In the eastern survey area (eastern Ontario, Quebec, Atlantic Canada, Maine, and northern New York), the abundance of most duck species—including mallards, black ducks, green-winged teal, and ring-necked ducks—was statistically similar to last year’s estimate and the long-term average.
DU Canada biologist Adam Campbell reports that cold, wet weather persisted in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island well into summer. “With above average precipitation and below normal daily temperatures, many waterways were still at spring levels in mid-July,” he says. “Although this limited some shallow-water feeding habitat for broods, an abundance of standing water in shallow ponds should have more than made up for any impacts caused by high water levels. Despite unseasonably cool summer weather, waterfowl broods appeared to hold up well. Given favorable wetland conditions and reports of many large early broods, waterfowl production looked good in the Atlantic provinces this year.”
The outlook for Atlantic Flyway goose populations was variable. Harsh spring weather reduced production of Atlantic Population Canada geese and Atlantic brant, likely resulting in smaller fall flights of these birds in 2009. In contrast, greater snow geese benefitted from milder weather on their breeding grounds, and an above average fall flight of these geese is anticipated.
In 2009, improved wetland conditions in the Prairie Pothole Region helped total duck numbers in the traditional survey area reach the highest level in a decade. While this is great news for waterfowl hunters, the habitats that support duck populations continue to face many long-term threats. Since 2007, the U.S. Prairie Pothole Region has lost more than 1.2 million acres of upland nesting cover on former Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands, and contracts will expire on another 3.1 million acres of CRP by 2012. Even worse, more than 3.3 million acres of native prairie could be converted to row crops during the next five years.
“Water without nesting cover does little to improve duck production, and grassland continues to be lost at an alarming rate across the prairie Duck Factory,” Humburg says. “If these losses continue, waterfowl populations won’t be nearly as productive during the wet weather cycles that have historically fueled prairie duck populations. As this year clearly shows, dedication to conservation, even during times of drought, can pay off when water returns to the prairies and wetlands again teem with breeding waterfowl and other wildlife.”
For more information on waterfowl populations and habitat conditions on the breeding grounds, go to flyways.us.
Waterfowl Harvests Remain High
Liberal Regulations Recommended Again
Looking back at the 2008-2009 waterfowl season, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that hunters bagged a total of 13.7 million ducks in the United States—down slightly from the 2007-2008 harvest of 14.6 million ducks. Mallards were once again the most commonly taken waterfowl species, comprising roughly one in three ducks harvested in the United States last season. The next most commonly harvested ducks were green-winged teal, gadwalls, wood ducks, and blue-winged/cinnamon teal (in that order). U.S. waterfowlers also bagged an estimated 3.8 million geese—a slight increase from the previous year's harvest and near a record high.
For the thirteenth consecutive year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has recommended liberal hunting regulations for the upcoming waterfowl season in every flyway. This year's midcontinent mallard population of 8.7 million birds (including combined estimates of mallards in the traditional survey area and Great Lakes states) and 3.6 million May ponds in Prairie Canada easily ensured that liberal hunting regulations would remain in place in the Central and Mississippi flyways (see matrix). Populations of eastern and western mallards also remained healthy, allowing for liberal hunting regulations in the Atlantic and Pacific flyways as well.
The USFWS also considers the status of certain individual duck species during the annual regulations-setting process. This year's pintail breeding population of 3.2 million birds was up 23 percent from the 2008 estimate. As a result, the USFWS has increased the daily bag limit for pintails in the Pacific Flyway from one to two birds this year. The bag limit for pintails in the Atlantic, Mississippi, and Central flyways will remain one bird per day throughout the regular waterfowl season.
In addition, canvasback numbers were up 35 percent in 2009, increasing from 489,000 birds in 2008 to 662,000 birds this year. Consequently, the USFWS has reinstated a full canvasback season with a one-bird daily bag limit in every flyway. In other news, the USFWS recently revised its scaup management strategy to include restrictive, moderate, and liberal harvest alternatives. Based on a breeding population of 4.2 million scaup in 2009, the USFWS has prescribed a moderate harvest package this year. A full season with a daily bag limit of two scaup was recommended in the Mississippi, Central, and Atlantic flyways, and an 86-day season with a daily limit of three scaup was allowed in the Pacific Flyway.
Waterfowl hunting regulations are determined each year by the USFWS in consultation with the flyway councils and not by Ducks Unlimited. Check with your state wildlife agency for season dates, daily bag limits, shooting times, and other waterfowl regulations where you plan to hunt.