By Wade Bourne, WF360 Mississippi Flyway Migration Editor
Sources in Illinois say the state’s waterfowlers have been reporting so-so hunting success, but not because the birds aren’t present. Recent aerial waterfowl counts show duck numbers are above the 10-year average, both in the Illinois River bottoms and along the Mississippi River corridor. The birds just aren’t making themselves available to hunters.
Randy Smith is the wetland wildlife program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “We fly weekly aerial waterfowl counts, and the count completed Nov. 22 showed a good number of ducks in the state,” Smith explains. “For instance, along the Illinois River we tallied 283,000 ducks, which is above the 10-year average of 228,000. And on the Mississippi River we counted almost 469,000, compared to the 10-year average of 334,000. So we’ve got ducks. It’s just that we’ve been having warm temperatures and bright moonlit nights, and I don’t think they’ve been moving much.”
Along the Illinois River, the bulk of the ducks are on refuges and wildlife management areas in the upper portion of the valley. In contrast, in the mid-valley high water this past summer prevented wildlife managers from manipulating moist-soil areas to produce abundant, high-quality duck food. As a result, below-average numbers of ducks are present in that area this year.
For example, Jake Randa, wildlife biologist at the Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) near Havana, reports, “Duck numbers are low and hunting is slow along the mid-Illinois River bottoms. We’ve had no major migration in several weeks. Right now we have around 60,000 ducks on Chautauqua and Emiquon NWRs. This is well below where we should be at this time of year. We have mostly mallards now and a few green-winged teal. The pintails are all gone. We just haven’t had much of an influx of new birds because of the mild weather conditions we’ve been experiencing.”
Farther to the west duck numbers and hunting prospects are brighter. Ken Dalrymple is a wildlife biologist on the Two Rivers NWR near Brussels. Dalrymple reports that this refuge is currently hosting between 150,000 and 170,000 ducks, including pintails, mallards, ring-necked ducks and other species.
“We’re holding thousands of pintails,” Dalrymple says. “These ducks have been here for weeks. There’s abundant natural food on our refuge, especially on Swan Lake, which we were able to draw down this summer to promote the growth of red root, wild millet and other high-quality duck foods.”
Dalrymple adds, “Conditions are stable here for the time being. We’ve had no major migration of new ducks recently, but our count is higher than normal for this time of year.”
In the south, dry conditions at Crab Orchard NWR near Marion had a negative impact on moist-soil habitats. Casey Bryan, biologist technician at Crab Orchard, reports, “Neither our duck numbers nor our water have been normal so far this fall. We’re pumping water now into a couple of areas to try to provide better habitat for birds coming down.”
Bryan adds that this past week he saw a good push of ring-necked ducks and gadwalls arrive on Crab Orchard.
In summary, the Illinois DNR’s Randy Smith says duck hunting in Illinois is “not great, but not bad. Hunters may not be bringing in boatloads of ducks, but most are bringing in a few.”
Smith adds that prospects for a big push of new ducks are low in the short term, with no strong cold fronts in the forecast for the next several days. “I think ‘trickle’ is the right word to describe what our migration will be like in coming days and weeks,” he says.
Illinois is divided into four waterfowl zones: North, Central, South Central and South. Duck season in the North Zone is open through Dec. 13. Hunting in the Central Zone closes Dec. 20, while hunting in the South Central Zone closes Jan. 9. Hunting in the South Zone opens Thanksgiving Day and runs through Jan. 22.
Goose season is open through Jan. 12 in the North Zone and through Jan. 31 in the Central, South Central, and South Zones.
Wade Bourne is the Ducks Unlimited magazine editor-at-large, co-host of DU TV, avid waterfowler, and conservationist. Bourne will provide habitat and hunting reports for the Mississippi Flyway throughout the 2016-2017 season.
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