By Paul Davis, WF360 Mississippi Alluvial Valley Migration Editor
Duck numbers across Southeast Missouri remain strong, though it appears the peak of the fall migration already has passed.
“It does look like we peaked a couple weeks ago,” says Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) Wetland Ecologist Frank Nelson, who compiles the agency’s bi-weekly aerial survey numbers. “The early push of birds in November probably caught waterfowl hunters off guard because it deviates from the trend the last five years or so.”
The Show-Me State typically sees its highest duck numbers during the first two weeks of December, but this fall it surpassed a one-million-bird high mark in late November and now is holding a lower than normal 786,000 ducks.
Cold fronts the last two Mondays haven’t resulted in appreciable pushes of birds into Southeast Missouri, Nelson notes, but they did move birds around that already were in the state. “We may have had a slight influx of birds over the last two weeks, but that was offset by a greater number of ducks leaving the state and continuing to move south.”
An example, he says, can be found in the most recent counts for gadwalls, pintails and green-winged teal, which have “dropped by nearly half from the week before.” Even snow goose numbers have fallen off dramatically.
Still, this week’s survey showed significant numbers of ducks, especially mallards, remain on Southeast Missouri’s managed wetlands.
The Otter Slough Conservation Area in Stoddard County, one of the most popular waterfowl areas in the state, is holding more than 50,000 ducks this week, though it had nearly 74,000 birds one week ago, and at the Ten Mile Pond CA in Mississippi County, biologists report more than 67,000 ducks.
What hunters might face though, Nelson says, is birds which have become stale. “On many public areas, the birds now have been here a while, which makes hunting tough.” These “educated” ducks can require hunters to change tactics, whether that means “staying until the end of shooting hours to be successful, or, on private land, making sure you are giving the birds some refuge” or something else.
Unfortunately, just like many other places up and down the Mississippi Flyway, Southeast Missouri is experiencing drought conditions. In stark contrast to the widespread flooding the region saw in May, the driest fall in almost two decades means there’s a lack of water almost everywhere, and birds, along with the hunters pursuing them, are concentrating in areas which can be artificially flooded, like Otter Slough, Ten Mile Pond and a limited number of private fields.
Nowhere is the water situation more evident than at the Mingo National Wildlife Refuge, which relies mostly on rainwater to fill its waterfowl habitat, and the adjacent Duck Creek CA, which uses underground wells and lake water to flood its hunting units.
Mingo biologist Brad Pendley counted only 8,300 ducks on the refuge this week, about one-fourth the mid-December average, but next door at Duck Creek, on the same day, MDC staff counted more than 55,000 birds.
“It’s just been a very long dry spell,” Pendley says. “We’re as dry or drier for this time of the year as 2012,” which was the last time the refuge’s greentree reservoirs weren’t at least partially flooded by now.
Unfortunately, that notion doesn’t bode well for those who prefer to hunt Mingo’s popular timber units, Pools 7 and 8. They likely will remain dry for the entirety of the season, says MDC’s Southeast Region Wildlife Supervisor, Matt Bowyer. “It doesn’t look like we’re going to be able to hunt the wade-and-shoot timber any this year. We need a 5-, 6- or 7-inch rain, and maybe several of them, but there’s nothing in the long-term forecast.”
All that boils down to limited places for ducks to go and limited spots for hunters.
The lack of water on the overall landscape is a “blessing and a curse on our conservation areas,” Bowyer says. “We’re able to pump, so we’re some of the only water around.” That, he noted, is creating larger crowds at those managed areas. “The draws are filled every day, and it’s pretty much wall-to-wall.”
Despite the challenges at this point in the season, Bustin’ Beaks Guide Service owner Ryan Hutson of Poplar Bluff remains optimistic. “There are lots of birds to the north still,” he says. “We just need some snow and ice up north and some water here to hold the birds.”
Paul Davis is a writer and photographer with a lifelong passion for the outdoors, including waterfowl, turkey, and deer hunting. He resides in southeast Missouri and will be providing migration, habitat, and hunting information for Mo., Ark., Tenn., Miss., and Ky., through the 2017-2018 waterfowl season