By Dale Humburg, DU Chief Scientist
"Too hot, too cold, just right" characterize what I expect the 2013-2014 waterfowl season to be.
Along with "too wet, too dry, best ever," the unpredictable combinations of habitat conditions and weather will certainly be the common themes for the upcoming season. Of course, that's the case every year.
It begins with the departure of birds from the wintering grounds and culminates for many of us with ducks over the decoys. During the intervening six to nine months, birds fatten up for northern migration, pair up (if they haven't already), nest, often nest again if early attempts fail, raise a brood, molt, fatten up again to migrate south, and potentially show up on the day we choose to venture to the marsh.
Every year, there are a lot of weather and habitat variables that affect bird numbers, distribution, and our local outlook. This year, considerable delays in spring migration and the progression of the breeding season in many areas accounted for a bit of uncertainty in waterfowl production. Regardless, breeding waterfowl numbers were strong overall; the three highest duck breeding populations on record have occurred the last three years. Despite a couple of significant changes from 2012, notably declines in blue-winged teal and scaup, the bottom line was quite favorable in terms of population status.
The later breeding phenology could result in a bit of a change in fall staging and initial migration – but probably not perceptible as the fall migration continues. The influence of weather and habitat conditions for waterfowl en route will be more significant, however. As we end the summer, conditions in some parts of the county are characterized by extreme to exceptional drought. Areas of the mid-Pacific Flyway and mid- to southern Central Flyway are most notable. In these areas, the abundance and distribution of ducks and geese could be severely impacted.
Of course, major weather fronts, or lack thereof, can have the most notable near-term influence on duck and goose availability. Waterfowlers need to pay close attention to wind, clouds, and temperature to keep pace with these key variables affecting hunting prospects. These days, this is a lot easier with real-time weather forecasting and prediction – DU's weather tools, Migration Map and apps are great places to start!
Near term–the 2013-2014 waterfowl season, that is–the outlook is pretty good overall. Near record breeding populations and at least moderate production should ensure good numbers of birds heading south. Longer term, however, waterfowl conservationists need to be as tuned into habitat trends as we are focused on this year's fall flight. Policies affecting conservation funding, such as the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA), the future of the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp (duck stamp), and conservation provisions of the Farm Bill deserve at least as much attention over the next year as we pay to tomorrow's weather report. Enjoy the fall, but let's also remember our responsibility for waterfowl conservation throughout the year.
Dale Humburg has served as Ducks Unlimited Chief Scientist since 2007 and has been involved in waterfowl and wetlands research and management for more than 40 years. He began his waterfowl education with his dad in a duck boat in the mid-1950s, and this has continued ever since. His experience in wetland and waterfowl research has involved semi-permanent marsh management, invertebrate dynamics, willow wetlands, Canada goose wintering ecology, evaluation of waterfowl hunting programs, surveys of waterfowl hunters, and floodplain wetland restoration. Humburg is passionate about passing on the waterfowling traditions that he learned from his father to his grandchildren.