Migration Alert: Central Flyway Preview

Sept. 26, 2018 - Central Flyway

Photo © MichaelFurtman.com

Stable but strong waterfowl populations and improved habitat conditions in many areas have hunters in the Central Flyway eager for opening day, and their optimism is shared by waterfowl managers and biologists throughout the flyway. Here is a state-by-state breakdown.

North Dakota

Timely summer rains across portions of North Dakota helped rescue breeding and nesting habitat in this important waterfowl production state, and the resulting intense nesting response helped boost the number of ducks set to migrate south out of this section of the Prairie Pothole Region.

The official line from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department's (NDGF) annual mid-July waterfowl production survey is that the fall flight of ducks from the state will be up 12 percent from last year. Mallard, gadwall and blue-winged teal brood numbers showed significant improvement, while the number of young pintails jumped a whopping 142 percent over 2017.

The numbers bode well for hunters heading into fall, says NDGF waterfowl biologist Mike Szymanski, but he cautions that "the spigot has turned off," and wetland conditions are deteriorating.

"A lot of those places that got good precipitation and where duck production was strong are starting to dry up, and the ducks are starting to move to find the best conditions," Szymanski says. 

Szymanski added that hunting conditions may also be impacted by the return of a dry weather pattern.

"I've had guys calling me asking about wetland conditions and whether or not they'll be able to hunt some of their favorite small, two-acre wetlands, and I have to be honest that these small, shallow basins have the potential to dry up before hunting season even begins," he says.

But Syzmanski emphasizes that the overall outlook for duck hunting in North Dakota is much better now than it was at the beginning of the nesting season.

"Hunters can expect to see variable habitat conditions, but duck numbers are going to be relatively high," he says.

South Dakota

Improved wetland conditions also helped boost duck production in South Dakota, where state waterfowl biologist Rocco Murano with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks says hunters can expect to see a strong flight of birds this fall.

Murano says a good indication of just how successful nesting ducks were this summer was the high ratio of young to adult birds that he observed while banding mallards and other puddle ducks last month.

"In those areas where we have good perennial upland cover, timely rains helped fill those shallow wetland basins that are so important to ducks," Murano says. "The result is a good number of young ducks in the state this year."

Some traditional duck-producing areas in the northeast and central parts of the state did not receive the moisture and remain drier than normal, Murano adds.

"This very well could impact the migration of waterfowl this fall," Murano says. 

In recent years, hunting conditions across South Dakota have depended a lot on the precipitation the state receives in the month of September, Murano says, and with localized areas receiving five inches of rain or more in the past week, chances are there will be unique opportunities to hunt new water on the landscape.

"Overall, I think hunters have good reason to be excited for fall," Murano says.

Nebraska

According to Mark Vrtiska, waterfowl program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the outlook for the coming duck and goose seasons is based on three things – water, waterfowl, and weather – and heading into fall, hunters in the Cornhusker State have two of the three already in their favor.

"Our water levels are better than average, we have good bird numbers in the state, and we know that there's been good production to the north," Vrtiska says. "The biggest factor affecting hunter success in Nebraska every year is the weather that the Dakotas and Canada receive to drive those birds south, but that's completely out of our control."

Vrtiska says that hunters did well during the September teal season, and he expects that they will see good numbers of locally raised mallards, gadwalls, teal and other ducks, thanks to strong duck production in the Sandhills region of western Nebraska this summer.

"We have water in wetlands out there that have been dry for some time, and the ducks have found them and are using them to take advantage of the new food sources," Vrtiska says.

River systems like the North Platte that are heavily used by migrating waterfowl are "looking good," Vrtiska says, as is the Rainwater Basin, which serves as a stopover for large numbers of ducks and geese each year.

"We could probably use another shot of rain in some places, but overall the stage is set for a good year in Nebraska," he says.

Kansas

The September teal season in Kansas will hopefully serve as a barometer for what hunters will see later in the fall when the majority of ducks and geese arrive from the north, as improved water levels across the state have attracted large numbers of the early migrants.

Reports from several wetland complexes managed by the Kansas Division of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism note favorable water conditions and strong teal numbers, and hunters in those areas have enjoyed fairly consistent action over recent weeks.

This includes Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Management Area, where September rains have changed the outlook for not just teal hunting but the entire waterfowl season.

"We were pretty much completely dry all summer long, which did allow us to manage some cattails and grow good stands of millet and other moist-soil plants," explains Jason Wagner, manager at Cheyenne Bottoms. "Then, beginning around Labor Day, we received some really good rains, and now we have shallow water on top of all of this food, and the ducks have responded really well. It was a best-case scenario on the timing of the rain, no doubt."

Wagner says that the rains also helped improve crop conditions and water levels in the surrounding area, which will help attract and hold waterfowl as the season progresses.

"The milo crop, which is really important for both ducks and geese, looks phenomenal, and I think we have enough water to get through the season," he says. "If the weather cooperates, hunters should have a pretty good year."

Oklahoma

Habitat conditions in Oklahoma underwent a significant change last week, when a major weather system dumped heavy rains over much of the state.

The south-central and southeast parts of Oklahoma received the largest amounts of rainfall, with localized areas receiving more than a foot of precipitation. That included the Lake Texoma region, where the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's Josh Richardson says the heavy rains may cause some problems this fall.

"Lake Texoma is one place where we did get Japanese millet planted this summer, which is now susceptible to flooding," says Richardson, a state migratory bird biologist. "By and large, native vegetation is not going to be quite as affected. Those plants will largely just lay over and that food source will remain for waterfowl to use later on. If the water levels on these reservoirs stay up for two or three weeks, then we may have some problems."

The problem in southwestern Oklahoma remains dry conditions, according to Kelvin Schoonover at Hackberry Flat Wildlife Management Area, as the rain that fell in the area last week did little to improve water levels.

"The two or three inches of rain that we received basically soaked right into the ground. We still have no water in our wetlands," Schoonover says.

Overall, Richardson contends that the outlook for Oklahoma is largely positive.

"With an additional shot of rain in October or the first part of November, I think Oklahoma will really be set up well," Richardson says. "This year is looking good. Now we just hope for a lot of cold and snow up north to really get the birds down here."