By Kyle Wintersteen
Despite a severe drought affecting northern Florida, Sunshine State biologists report strong numbers of staple species: blue- and green-winged teal, ringnecks, wigeon and scaup.
"We have a couple lakes in north Florida that are almost completely dry," says Andrew Fanning, a state waterfowl biologist based in northern Florida. "And the lakes that are holding water are pretty shallow, but there's no shortage of food. There really never is in Florida—our plants grow all year, after all. So the birds are still finding plenty of available habitat."
Fanning reports that ducks are arriving in similar numbers as the past several years, which have been exceptional. It's been a strong year for blue-winged teal, which arrived ahead of schedule, and in late December a solid push of greenwings showed up as well. Of course, it's the ring-necked duck that quickens the pulse of many Floridians.
"Northern and central Florida is a major, major wintering area for them," Fanning says, "We've seen a lot arriving in the last few weeks, and I expect the hunter harvest will be above average, as it has been for the last few years. We also saw a fair amount of wigeon early on in northern Florida. They didn't stay here long, but they're being reported in the south region and in pretty strong numbers up the east coast through Merritt Island. Northern pintails are surprisingly up in many parts of the state as well."
While Fanning does not expect the drought to have a huge impact on ducks, it has wreaked some havoc on hunters. Many lakes are too low for access with typical duck boats, so hunters are finding themselves concentrated on any available, deeper water.
"The problem with putting all that pressure on an area is there's no shortage of shallow wetlands for ducks to find and many are on big plantations that can't be hunted by the public," Fanning says. "So initially the hunters were doing great, but then it dropped off pretty fast as birds scattered to other areas."
Overall hunters are faring very well on the season, which Florida measures by collecting data at wildlife management area check stations. Numbers this year are as high as 3-5 birds per hunter in some areas, including the hydrilla-rich Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs) south of Lake Okeechobee. Bags have generally been heavy in teal and ringnecks.
"The T.M. Goodwin WMA in the southeast near Palm Bay has been consistent throughout the year on teal and local fulvous and black-bellied whistling ducks," Fanning advises. "The P.C.S. WMA has also been good. It's a deeper water habitat with teal, lots of shovelers and also ringnecks. As far as scaup, we're seeing elevated numbers on the Guana River WMA."
This is not to suggest the second split has been easy for Florida hunters. Not even biologists can say with certainty where the earlier arriving birds have dispersed to.
"It seems the birds are shifting around mostly in response to hunter pressure," Fanning says. "I don't know if they're going farther south to central Florida or moving farther inland. The second split has thus far been hit or miss for a lot of hunters, but the folks who are willing to go that extra yard with scouting have continued to do well."
Avid waterfowler and Miami resident, Travis Rolan, has been focusing on STA 2,3,4 and 5. All of these public hunting areas are draw hunts within 45 minutes to one hour from Miami. He explains that the hunting has been fantastic and have been some of the best he's experienced in Florida.
"We are shooting lots of teal, ringnecks and mottled ducks," Rolan says. "We have even shot a few pintails, which are not regular birds in this area."
With the excellent waterfowling right now, Rolan encourages Florida waterfowl hunters to take advantage of the opportunities in the state.
"The STAs are great habitat, providing nutrient rich food sources for ducks. While this isn't Arkansas, I'd say that Florida waterfowl hunting is as good as it gets right now," he says. "We have been shooting limits on a regular basis, including a banded mottled duck. Due to the amount of shooting we are hearing around us, it sounds like others are doing just as well."
Find migration and hunting reports in your area on the Ducks Unlimited Migration Map.