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Fall Flight Update: A Year of Extremes

DU Chief Scientist sheds light on habitat, hunting
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By Dale Humburg, DU Chief Scientist

About the time the waterfowl season closes, I begin thinking about the next one.  Beginning in February, I pay attention to snowfall on the prairies, followed over the next 8 months by migration back north, reports of breeding populations, summer habitat conditions, regulations announcements, late summer and fall rains, weather fronts, and timing of freeze-up.  In each instance, my expectations for the next season are either heightened or reeled in to a degree. 

As a waterfowl hunter, I admit to being optimistic no matter what.  As a waterfowl biologist, I am realistic about uncertain weather, water, and waterfowl migrations.  Let’s review this year so far and look ahead.

Very limited snow cover, mild winter weather, and early spring migrations to drying potholes were not the best ways to start 2012.  As anticipated, however, the nearly unprecedented 2011 breeding habitat conditions and duck production carried over into spring 2012.  As a result, a record breeding duck population, with most species at or above long-term averages was surveyed.  And, despite a very dry start to the breeding season, most areas did not get any worse, and some regions actually improved with summer rains.  Field reports also reflected good production in a number of areas. 

Hunting opportunity, at least to the degree affected by liberal season length and bag limit – 17 consecutive years – will not be a reason for a poor 2012 season.  A number of other factors, however, will certainly have an impact.

Foremost among the uncertainties going into the fall are water and food conditions.  An extended and worsening drought in 2012 is reminiscent of the late 1980s, and many traditional migration and wintering areas could be affected.  By late summer “exceptional drought” through much of the Mid-South, and portions of Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, as well as “extreme drought” in other areas from the Atlantic to the Pacific Flyway will impact food conditions for migrating birds.  This is especially the case for areas that rely on corn as a primary duck and goose food. 

Mast crops (acorns and such) have not fared well at all, and ducks will not find this traditional food source in many areas.  Natural foods, such as millet and smartweed, will still provide duck groceries in many areas even if affected by drought.  The issue here, however, is that this food source needs to be flooded to be available.  This will be the case both for making duck food accessible and for making hunting locations available.  Areas with water management capacity, assuming that water sources have not dried up, will provide prime local spots for waterfowl and waterfowl hunters.  The concern at regional scales, however, is that resources may not be sufficient to sustain birds and hunters for long.  This could mean compressed seasons, greater short-term harvest, ducks and geese in different locations (e.g., reservoirs and rivers), etc.

I expect the impacts to be more local than regional.  Experience with overall levels of duck harvest over the decades, has shown much less variation at state and flyway levels than what we see locally over our decoys.  As a result, I would not make broad generalizations about this year’s trends in hunting opportunity and harvest.  Speculation that hunting will be great because ducks have few habitat alternatives could easily backfire.  Or, a prediction that hunting will be great further south because ducks will migrate early from drought-stricken areas could turn around with a major rain event or with mild winter weather.

My advice is to pay close attention to the weather events this fall.  You probably won’t want to miss a flight day.  If you manage a wetland area, key an eye on the patterns of bird use and hunting success; manage water and hunting disturbance accordingly.  If you are flexible in your hunting styles, consider scouting different areas than you might usually hunt; ducks may opt for different spots than usual.  As for me, I can’t wait for the season to open!

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