Memphis, Tenn., Dec. 6, 2005 – First, there were good reports this spring from the breeding grounds.
Then came the devastation of the Gulf wintering grounds along the Louisiana coast
from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. And dry conditions plagued much of the Central and Mississippi flyways into the fall as duck seasons began.
Southern waterfowl hunters didn’t know what to expect when the seasons got underway. Now with successive cold fronts over the last three weeks and freezing temperatures this week across the northern U.S. and Canada, ducks are returning to the south, and despite the dry conditions, the first split is receiving rave review by southern waterfowl hunters.
Further, with drought conditions in the mid-west, and now freezing temperatures ducks seem to be moving south quickly. Over the past three weeks large flights of ducks have been moving into historic southern wintering grounds, and hunters are reaping the rewards of this summer’s strong breeding effort and the return of a more normal winter weather pattern in Canada and the northern U.S.
The majority of waterfowl have left Canada and the U.S. Prairies and are now winging their way south.
“We are receiving reports of large flights of birds, excellent hunting and hunters bagging limits from around the state,” said Craig Hilburn, director of conservation for Ducks Unlimited (DU) in Arkansas.
Hilburn says this seems to be especially true in the eastern Arkansas where reports indicate a strong return of ducks to this historical wintering ground. Hunting reports from the southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and west Tennessee are also good despite dry habitat conditions.
“If you’ve got water, you’ve got ducks,” said Mike Checkett, DU regional biologist at the Memphis National Headquarters. “Many duck hunters from across the south are telling me this is the best first split in the season in many years. Even Florida waterfowlers say the number of ducks that moved into Florida during the duck season's nine-day first phase were some of the highest they can remember.”
The same is true throughout the south.
“Those hunting permanent wetlands, cypress/tupelo brakes, experienced great hunting over the opening weekend. Great hunts were also reported by duck clubs that pumped water,” said Chad Manlove, Manager of Conservation Programs in Jackson, MS.
“Reelfoot Lake has been loaded with ducks, and success there has been high,” said Wade Bourne, one of the hosts of DU-TV, Ducks Unlimited’s television, and a west Tenn. Native who frequently hunts the famed lake. “With the way this fall’s weather is shaping up we could be in for a great season.”
A winter weather system ripped across the upper Plains on Nov 28 and moved on into the Great Lakes Region. The snowstorm brought blizzard-like conditions and knocked out power to thousands across the Plains. Snow fell from North Dakota to the Texas Panhandle, closing hundreds of miles of highways and piling up drifts up to 6-feet-high.
Reports from the mid-Central Flyway indicated birds were on the move and as the storm moved east, snow and temperatures fell across Minnesota, Wisconsin and northern Illinois.
With temperatures well below freezing, hardier birds such as mallards and the larger Canada geese species are being forced to leave or congregate on larger rivers and big water bodies that remain unfrozen. Aerial surveys conducted by the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) on November 30 indicated that a new wave of birds had moved into the Mississippi River valley with a count three times the 10-year average. The number of ducks counted on Missouri Department of Conservation areas and national wildlife refuges on November 22 were similar to the peak numbers observed the previous two years, so it appears there are still ducks to the north.
Reports from mid-tier and southern portions of the Mississippi flyway indicate increased migration activity ahead of the winter weather, with a second wave of birds moving behind the system in areas where the front has already passed. Drought conditions throughout the Mississippi Flyway continue to concentrate birds on larger bodies of water, rivers and managed flooded habitat.
Birds seem to be moving quickly to the southern end of the Central and Mississippi flyways (Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and Mississippi). Despite the devastation from the recent hurricanes, ducks have returned to the Louisiana and Texas Gulf coast in strong numbers and excellent hunting success is being reported. Even mallards have been showing up in surprising numbers in coastal bag limits. Much of the second rice crop in this region has not been cut this year and idle agricultural fields that have water are providing much needed food resources for waterfowl.
“The best it’s been in four years”, said Chad Courville, DU’s regional biologist for south Louisiana. “Hunting pressure has been down, because there are many areas that cannot be accessed because of storm damage.”
Hunting is good in north Louisiana, too.
“It appears ducks - particularly mallards - have returned to North Louisiana in strong numbers,” said Tim Kane, DU regional director for North Louisiana. “We've definitely experienced a good migration of ducks so far this year. Much earlier than years past.”
Texas hunters also enjoyed a great start to their duck and goose seasons.
“The hunting was hot literally and figuratively,” said David Schuessler, director of fundraising for DU in Texas.
Although the season is now closed ducks are pouring into the Lone Star state providing a bright outlook for the second split, which opens December 10.
Another cold front is pushing through this week bringing more snow and single digit temperatures to some portions of the upper Midwest and northern U.S.
The one low note this year has been for the public land hunter. Drought conditions have left many public areas dry and hunting opportunities far and few between. However, those willing to seek out small pockets of water have been successful. Rainfall is still sorely needed to improve habitats across the south in order to winter waterfowl already here and attract migrating birds.
Checkett reminds hunters, “Primary migrations can occur at any time between October and January and departure from northern states to southern wintering grounds depends on northern habitat conditions and the timing of severe weather events.
“Likewise the length of time ducks stay within a particular area or state depends on these same conditions. These responses determine when key migration events occur, which often affects the timing and extent of hunting opportunity and success,” Checkett explained.
DU continues to conserve habitat critical to meeting the annual life-cycle needs of North American waterfowl. DU’s focus is working with public and private landowners to secure nesting habitat on the breeding grounds, migration and winter habitats and promotion of sustainable agricultural practices and conservation policies beneficial for the annual needs of waterfowl.