2013 Waterfowl Forecast

Good habitat conditions on the breeding grounds should result in another large fall flight this year
By Matt Young

This spring, ducks and geese returned once again to good wetland conditions across many of North America's most important waterfowl breeding areas. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) reports that in the Prairie Pothole Region, this year's estimate of 6.9 million May ponds was up 24 percent from the previous year's estimate of 5.5 million ponds. Waterfowl responded to favorable habitat conditions with a strong breeding effort, especially on the prairies. According to the USFWS, the total breeding duck estimate in the traditional survey area was 45.6 million birds, a slight decrease from last year's total but tied with the 2011 estimate, which was the second-largest population on record.

Forecast by Flyway:

Pacific Flyway  | Central Flyway  |  Mississippi Flyway  |  Atlantic Flyway
 

A closer look at the data shows that seven of the 10 most common duck species remained at levels similar to last year. Of particular importance to hunters, mallards had a breeding population of 10.4 million birds in the traditional survey area, essentially unchanged from the 2012 estimate and 36 percent above the long-term average. This was the first time since surveys began in 1955 that mallard numbers exceeded 10 million birds in back-to-back years. Among other species, American wigeon numbers were up 23 percent, while scaup and blue-winged teal declined by 20 percent and 16 percent, respectively. 



"Abundant precipitation in the heart of North America's most important waterfowl breeding areas set the stage for good duck breeding success this summer and hopefully for good hunting this fall," says DU Chief Scientist Dale Humburg. "Populations of mallards, canvasbacks, redheads, gadwalls, blue- and green-winged teal, and northern shovelers remained above their North American Waterfowl Management Plan goals, and we are encouraged by this spring's American wigeon numbers, which were above average for the first time in many years. Despite the good news in this year's survey, we continue to be concerned about populations of scaup and northern pintails, which remained below their long-term averages, as well as ongoing habitat loss across the Prairie Pothole Region and in other high-priority waterfowl areas." 

May pond counts and waterfowl breeding population estimates are compiled during extensive air and ground surveys conducted by staff from the USFWS, Canadian Wildlife Service, and state and provincial wildlife agencies. These surveys are essential to managing waterfowl populations and setting annual hunting regulations. The following report provides an overview of the status of habitat conditions and waterfowl populations across key breeding areas in the United States and Canada. 

Fowl Fact: MALLARD INDEX While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service no longer issues a fall flight forecast for total ducks, the agency does calculate an annual fall flight index for midcontinent mallards. This year's index of approximately 13 million midcontinent mallards was statistically similar to last year's estimate and above the long-term average.


Pacific Flyway 

The Pacific Flyway receives most of its waterfowl from the western United States and Canada, with the majority of the region's ducks and geese coming from the Prairie Pothole Region, Western Boreal Forest, and Arctic. In 2013, an estimated 4.5 million breeding ducks were surveyed across the grasslands and parklands of southern Alberta—a level statistically similar to last year's estimate and the long-term average. Among individual species, populations of mallards, gadwalls, pintails, American wigeon, green-winged teal, blue-winged teal, shovelers, and redheads were similar to last year, while scaup and canvasbacks decreased. 



The total breeding duck estimate in the traditional survey area was 45.6 million birds, a slight decrease from last year's total but tied with the previous record set in 2011.
DU Canada Conservation Programs Specialist Ian McFarlane reports that abundant precipitation created productive habitat conditions for breeding waterfowl across southern Alberta this spring and summer. 

"Healthy upland cover growth and a delayed hay harvest again likely resulted in good nest success. Our field staff have reported numerous brood sightings, and brood survival is anticipated to be very good as a result of good to excellent wetland conditions," McFarlane says. 

Moving north, in Alaska and the Yukon Territory, total breeding ducks decreased 26 percent from the previous year's estimate and were 11 percent below the long-term average. Across the parklands and Boreal Forest of central and northern Alberta, northeastern British Columbia, and the Northwest Territories, breeding duck numbers were similar to the 2012 estimate and were 16 percent above the long-term average. 

DU Canada Waterbird Program Coordinator Glenn Mack reports that this appears to have been a good year for waterfowl production in the Western Boreal Forest, a key breeding ground for American wigeon, scaup, green-winged teal, and several other waterfowl species. "Above-normal precipitation fell in June and July, which helped maintain good to excellent wetland conditions in many areas," Mack says. "Mallards and other early nesters appear to have had good nest success in areas of boreal Alberta and Manitoba where brood surveys were conducted. Other species, such as wigeon and ring-necked ducks, also appear to have had a successful year in these areas." 

Conversely, in the western contiguous United States, persistent drought has taken a toll on wetlands in many areas. In California, an estimated 451,000 breeding ducks were surveyed in 2013—a 15 percent decrease from the previous year and 23 percent below the long-term average. In Washington and Oregon, breeding duck numbers were similar to last year's estimates.  

The outlook for Pacific Flyway goose populations is mixed. Breeding success among Arctic nesting geese is influenced by the timing of the spring thaw as well as by weather and habitat conditions during the nesting and brood-rearing periods. Surveys conducted in coastal Alaska suggested that white-fronted geese, cackling geese, and Pacific brant had decreased breeding success this year. In contrast, Ross's geese and Pacific Population Canada geese were expected to have above-average production. 

Forecast by Flyway:

Pacific Flyway  | Central Flyway  |  Mississippi Flyway  |  Atlantic Flyway
 



Central Flyway

The Central Flyway receives most of its waterfowl from the Prairie Pothole Region, with the majority of ducks coming from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Most of the flyway's geese, as well as most of its scaup, American wigeon, and green-winged teal, are raised in the Western Boreal Forest and Arctic. 

Saskatchewan consistently ranks at the top of North America's most important waterfowl breeding areas. In 2013, an estimated 12.3 million breeding ducks were surveyed across southern Saskatchewan—an 8 percent increase from the previous year's population and the largest estimate since 1957. 

DU Canada Conservation Programs Specialist Kelly Rempel reports that southern Saskatchewan had another unusually wet spring and early summer in 2013. "Habitat conditions remain good to excellent across the prairie and parkland regions due to continued precipitation. In many areas, temporary wetlands and even some sheet water were still present on the landscape in July, and native pastures provided good to excellent nesting cover. Our observations suggest that waterfowl production has been very good in the province this year. Field staff are seeing above-average brood numbers, including numerous late broods, which indicates a strong renesting effort," Rempel says. 

In the north-central United States, approximately 12.2 million breeding ducks were surveyed in 2013—an 18 percent decrease from last year's total of almost 14.9 million birds. In the eastern Dakotas, breeding ducks decreased roughly 14 percent this spring, but remained a remarkable 119 percent above the long-term average. In the western Dakotas and Montana, duck numbers declined 35 percent from the previous year and were similar to the long-term average. 

In May, widespread rainfall greatly improved wetland conditions for breeding ducks across the northern plains. "Field reports from early brood surveys indicate good production in areas of Montana and the Dakotas with abundant seasonal wetlands," says Dr. Johann Walker, director of conservation planning at DU's Great Plains office. "The current wetland habitat base continues to sustain abundant ducks, but the lack of effective wetland protection policy in prairie Canada combined with the potential for significant weakening of wetland protection in the United States is a serious concern. Rapid, widespread loss and degradation of unprotected wetlands on private lands in the Prairie Pothole Region could quickly bring the good times for duck populations to an end and result in further declines of vulnerable species like pintails. As a result, efforts to protect shallow prairie wetlands on working agricultural lands are more important than ever."

The goose population outlook in the Central Flyway is bright. Good production was expected among Canada geese, white-fronted geese, and Ross's geese in this flyway. Variable production was reported among lesser snow geese, but these birds should have another large fall flight in 2013. 

Forecast by Flyway:

Pacific Flyway  | Central Flyway  |  Mississippi Flyway  |  Atlantic Flyway
 

 

Mississippi Flyway

The Mississippi Flyway receives most of its waterfowl from the prairies, Great Lakes region, Western Boreal Forest, and Arctic. In the southern Manitoba survey area (which also includes parts of southeastern Saskatchewan), this year's estimate of almost 1.6 million breeding ducks was similar to last year's estimate and the long-term average. Populations of all common duck species were statistically unchanged in 2013—except for green-winged teal and scaup, which decreased, and American wigeon, which increased—relative to last year's estimates. 

DU Canada Conservation Programs Specialist Mark Francis reports that southern Manitoba also had good to excellent wetland conditions in 2013. "Frequent, widespread rains have maintained or improved wetland habitats throughout Manitoba's parkland region. Semipermanent wetlands are full to overflowing, and seasonal wetlands are also inundated. Observations of numerous broods of different age classes indicate that there was a good initial hatch as well as good nest success among late-nesting species and renesting birds," Francis says. 

Across the Boreal Forest and tundra of northern Saskatchewan, northern Manitoba, and western Ontario, this year's estimate of 3.4 million breeding ducks was up 25 percent from the previous year and was similar to the long-term average. Among the four most commonly surveyed ducks in this region, populations of American wigeon and green-winged teal increased, while numbers of mallards and scaup were similar to 2012 estimates.  

DU Canada Conservation Programs Specialist David McLachlin reports that 2013 appears to have been another good year for waterfowl production in Ontario. "Very wet conditions have continued this spring and summer across much of the province. Mallard breeding chronology appears to be normal, with a protracted breeding effort reported in a number of locations. Overall, duck production is expected to be above average in Ontario this year," McLachlin says.  

In the Great Lakes states, above-average spring precipitation improved habitat conditions for breeding ducks across much of this region. In Minnesota, this year's estimate of total ducks (683,000 birds) was up relative to both the 2012 estimate and the long-term average. In Michigan, an estimated 678,600 breeding ducks were surveyed this spring, a level similar to last year's total and the long-term average. 

And in Wisconsin, total breeding ducks (527,300 birds) were up slightly from the 2012 estimate and the long-term average.  

The goose population outlook in the Mississippi Flyway is generally good. Among northern nesting Canada geese, the Mississippi Valley and Eastern Prairie populations are expected to have fall flights similar to last year's, while the beleaguered Southern James Bay Population should have a smaller fall flight. Good breeding success was expected among midcontinent white-fronted geese, and this population remains healthy. Production of lesser snow and Ross's geese was variable, but another large fall flight of these birds is expected. 

Forecast by Flyway:

Pacific Flyway  | Central Flyway  |  Mississippi Flyway  |  Atlantic Flyway
 


Atlantic Flyway

The majority of Atlantic Flyway waterfowl are raised in the Boreal Forest and Arctic of eastern Canada as well as in the Prairie Pothole Region, Great Lakes region, and northeastern United States. In the eastern survey area (eastern Ontario, Quebec, Atlantic Canada, Maine, and northern New York), the most common ducks (in order of abundance) were ring-necked ducks, black ducks, mallards, goldeneyes, mergansers, and green-winged teal. Among these species, populations of ring-necked ducks and goldeneyes were up significantly this year, while those of other species were similar to last year's estimates. 

Approximately 1.28 million breeding ducks were surveyed in the northeastern United States from New Hampshire to Virginia, similar to last year's total of 1.31 million birds.  

In Atlantic Canada, DU Canada Conservation Programs Specialist Nic McLellan reports that despite dry summer weather, typical waterfowl production is expected in this region. "Broods of many waterfowl species were observed on the landscape this summer. Water levels range from normal to slightly below normal, but the availability of wetland habitat remains good for waterfowl brood rearing. Based on long-range forecasts, water levels should remain average throughout the summer," McLellan says. 

The outlook for Atlantic Flyway goose populations is mixed. While aerial breeding ground surveys of Atlantic Population Canada geese were not conducted in 2013, biologists expected these birds to have below-average gosling production, based on weather data observed on Quebec's Ungava Peninsula and along the Hudson Bay coast. Farther north, in the eastern Canadian Arctic, weather conditions were generally more favorable for breeding geese, and average production was expected among greater snow geese and Atlantic brant.  

Forecast by Flyway:

Pacific Flyway  | Central Flyway  |  Mississippi Flyway  |  Atlantic Flyway
 


Looking Ahead

In 2013, good wetland conditions in the Prairie Pothole Region, the Western Boreal Forest, and many other key waterfowl breeding areas helped total duck numbers in the traditional survey area remain near a record high. While this is great news for waterfowl hunters, the habitats that support duck populations continue to be threatened. Widespread annual losses of small prairie wetlands, native grasslands, and upland cover formerly enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program continue to erode the habitat base that supports healthy duck populations.  

"The fact is that many of the waterfowl that fill the flyways each year are raised on unsecured habitats," DU CEO Dale Hall says. "We must maintain our focus on protecting and restoring important waterfowl habitat across the birds' range in order to see these kinds of numbers again in future wet years." 

Related: DU Chief Scientist outlines waterfowl season expectations


For more information about waterfowl populations and habitat conditions on the breeding grounds, visit flyways.us, ducks.org, and ducks.ca.

Liberal Regulations Recommended Again With generally good wetland conditions on the prairies and healthy mallard populations in each survey region, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has once again recommended liberal hunting regulations for the upcoming waterfowl season in every flyway. Based on this year's midcontinent mallard breeding population of 10.8 million birds, which includes combined estimates of mallards in the traditional survey area (minus Alaska) and the Great Lakes states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan), and almost 4.6 million May ponds in prairie Canada, liberal hunting regulations were proposed for the Central and Mississippi flyways. Populations of eastern and western mallard stocks also remained healthy, allowing for liberal hunting regulations in the Atlantic and Pacific flyways as well. Check with the appropriate state or provincial wildlife agency for season dates, daily bag limits, possession limits, shooting times, and other waterfowl regulations in the areas where you plan to hunt.