Migration Alert: Illinois Waterfowl Surveys Reveal Big Numbers

Dec. 1, 2017 – Mississippi Flyway – Illinois

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Photo © Michael Furtman

By Jay Anglin, WF360 Great Lakes Region Migration Editor

Millions of ducks and geese funnel through Illinois during their annual migrations up and down the Mississippi Flyway. Recent surveys indicate that duck and goose numbers are strong in the state, but balmy weather has hindered hunting success in recent days. With cold weather predicted next week, Illinois hunters should make preparations for improved hunting conditions.

According to reports from the field, Illinois waterfowlers have enjoyed good hunting success overall on public and private hunting areas. For example, hunters on Sanganois State Fish and Wildlife Area on the Illinois River harvested 3,726 ducks, or 219 ducks per day, during the first 17 days of the season.

“The duck migration seems to be ahead of schedule this year. However, over the last week or so, the migration seems to have stalled, with duck numbers declining in some areas, likely due to this midseason warm spell,” explains Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Wetland Wildlife Program Manager Randy Smith. “Hunter success typically tracks well with local duck abundance, so as duck numbers rise and fall, results will vary.”

Recent aerial waterfowl surveys conducted by the Illinois Natural History Survey and IDNR show duck numbers were above the 10-year average in most parts of the state through Thanksgiving week. Waterfowl numbers currently remain above average in central Illinois, but are below average in the south.

Despite good hunter access to prime waterfowl habitat and strong duck numbers, unseasonably mild conditions have made hunting a challenge. “It was good right before Thanksgiving, but has been stale since,” reports Mike Sertle, DU regional biologist for Illinois and Indiana. “Habitat and water conditions are excellent in most areas. A cold front moving through the middle of next week should freeze a lot of birds out of northern states. This will hopefully push some new ducks into the area and get birds moving.”

Located in the heart of Illinois duck country at Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) near Havana, the Steven A. Forbes Biological Station was established in 1894 and houses the Frank C. Belrose Waterfowl Research Center. The Forbes staff conducts aerial surveys along the Illinois River and nearby Mississippi River. The latest survey flight took place on November 29 and tallied about 325,000 ducks in the Illinois River Valley, while the latest total from the Mississippi River survey was a whopping 735,000 ducks.

“The Illinois River is 45 percent above the 10-year average for total ducks while the Mississippi River is 61 percent above the 10-year average. On the Mississippi River, mallards increased 109 percent since last week,” says Forbes Station waterfowl ecologist Aaron Yetter. “Based on hunting reports, I don’t think we had a major influx of migrant mallards over the past week or so. Maybe the mallards that have been concentrated on the duck clubs along the river were forced into the refuges, which would represent a redistribution of birds that were already in the area.”

The November 27 waterfowl survey conducted by the IDNR covered several river corridors, large marshes and other well-known waterfowl migration stopovers like Carlyle, Rend, and Horseshoe Lakes. The latest survey tallied nearly 55,000 ducks, including many early migrating species and more than 100,000 light geese.

Carlyle Lake alone had 18,500 ducks, mostly mallards and gadwalls. Union County had 34,000 snow geese and 6,000 white-fronted geese, which accounts for about 40 percent of the overall goose total in the central and southern Illinois survey area.

“We had good numbers two weeks ago, but it has slowed down since. We haven’t seen any really good pushes of birds yet,” explains Neil Vincent, visitor services manager at Crab Orchard NWR southwest of Marion. “We are dry here. Most of our wetlands and a lot of our ponds are about a foot low. Hunting has been slim pickings. We are still shooting early-migrating species in our hunting draws, mainly green-winged teal and only a few mallards.”

A good portion of Illinois’ waterfowl season lies ahead, and with solid duck numbers in many areas and more on the way, waterfowlers in the Land of Lincoln have good reason to be optimistic. 

IDNR waterfowl surveys (https://www.dnr.illinois.gov/hunting/waterfowl/surveys/Pages/default.aspx),

Jay Anglin is an avid hunter, fisherman, and guide from LaPorte, Indiana. A veteran writer, Anglin, holds a biology degree from Northern Michigan University. He will be providing migration updates from the Great Lakes Region throughout the 2017-2018 waterfowl season.