By Bill Monroe, WF360 Pacific Flyway Editor
Early migrating waterfowl, feeling an early winter pinch, are filtering south throughout the Pacific Flyway states and finding variable habitat conditions upon arrival in the region.
Healthy summer monsoons across the southwest, followed by this past week's typhoon-like deluge across the Pacific Northwest, instantly improved habitat conditions in these areas. Unfortunately, none of the rainfall ended up in the waterfowl-rich wintering areas of central and northern California.
Hunters should note that federally managed national wildlife refuges are closed (all 561 of them, including more than 130 in the flyway). Signs are up and even refuges accessible by water are closed. Federal law enforcement agents, including game wardens, remain on the job. For the time being, many federal websites are also shut down. Look to your state's fish and wildlife agency website for the most current local information.
That said, there are plenty of bright spots for Pacific Flyway hunters. The region is blessed with many other places to hunt, and many of these areas will have good wetland conditions thanks to recent rainfall. The liberal 107-day Pacific Flyway season also offers ample time for waterfowl to trickle down the flyway, and the onset of seasonal weather conditions should begin this process.
Dan Rosenberg of the Alaska Fish and Game says ducks and geese have been departing earlier than usual, as colder, wetter weather has arrived a little ahead of schedule. Arctic geese have largely departed from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and are now being reported in Washington, Oregon and even California. Although breeding success was down this year in parts of l Alaska, the Yukon, and British Columbia because of a delayed spring, many goose populations remain above their long-term averages.
Summer monsoons brought much-needed rainfall across Arizona, and biologists expect the state will hold more wintering ducks than last season, providing above-average hunting.
A near-record drought continues its stranglehold on California water supplies, which will likely have a severe impact on waterfowl habitat and distribution this fall and winter. "We'll have a lot of ducks and some very challenging water conditions," says Jeff McCreary, director for conservation programs in DU’s Western region.
The Salton Sea continues to drop and increase in salinity, with severe water shortages throughout the Imperial Valley. Waterfowl habitats in the Central Valley also depend on delivered water that will be in short supply in many areas.
In the north, the Klamath region is almost completely dry, with a little water in Tule Lake, but not much.
"The flyway's ducks and geese will likely bypass that important fall staging area and head right on south to the Suisun Marsh, Sacramento Delta and hopefully flooded rice fields," McCreary says.
One bright spot will be coastal habitats, such as the Humboldt Bay marshes, which should offer generally favorable habitat for waterfowl.
Some of Idaho’s most important waterfowl habitat is found along rivers, with the Snake River plain attracting some of the largest concentrations of ducks and geese. Jeff Knetter of the Idaho Fish and Game says the state received significant rainfall during the past week and conditions are very good for the opening day. "We're seeing some ducks already from the north," he says.
Early hunting will be best in northern Idaho, where ducks and geese from Alberta and Saskatchewan arrive first. Hunting success in southern Idaho will improve as seasonal weather moves waterfowl south.
Russell Woolstenhulme of the Nevada Department of Wildlife explains that last winter's rainfall and run-off were well below normal, leaving the state's largest waterfowl area, the Lahontan Valley (including Stillwater and Carson lakes) with just 30 to 40 percent of normal water levels. Mason Valley, another popular hunting area in western Nevada, is also hovering at 40 percent coverage with limited incoming water. Available water is shallow and in many wetlands bordered by mudflats with little cover for hunters to hide in. Reservoir storage is at minimum pool so no additional water is available for managed wetlands.
Oregon hunters will benefit from a good crop of local birds, which now have plenty of habitat following recent torrential rainfall. Good habitat conditions are also likely to attract and hold good numbers of early-arriving ducks and geese across the state.
"Wigeon, teal and pintails are already passing across the high desert, and white-fronted geese are moving en masse down to California," says Brandon Rheishus of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Summer Lake water levels are good, but Klamath Lake's marshes are still low, reeling from drought and agricultural water withdrawals.
Utah is facing similar conditions to Arizona.
"We have received huge monsoon rainfall totals across the southern half of the state," says Blair Stringham of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. "But drought and a below-average snowpack in the mountains will mean less waterfowl food in the Great Salt Lake marshes. Bear River Bay was dry for most of the summer."
Nevertheless, good early hunting is expected in the northern part of the state. The action will pick up later in southern Utah as ducks shift into a wintering feeding pattern.
Last week's rainfall has set the table for arriving waterfowl in Skagit County and the southern Puget Sound, with hunters hoping it will result in a productive early season as well. A district-by-district waterfowl outlook issued by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife points to good local duck production in most areas, although waterfowl numbers were down considerably in east and northeast Washington.
Bill Monroe is an Oregon-based freelance writer who has hunted the Pacific Flyway for three decades. Monroe will provide hunting and habitat reports throughout the Pacific Flyway for the 2103-2014 waterfowl season.