By Mike Brasher, PhD, Senior Waterfowl Scientist, Ducks Unlimited, Inc. & Steve Adair, PhD, Chief Scientist, Ducks Unlimited, Inc.

Executive Summary

This report describes duck breeding populations, habitat conditions, and broad-scale indices of weather as they may have affected regional duck abundance and hunting opportunities during the 2022–23 waterfowl season. Entering spring 2022, breeding habitat conditions and expectations for duck production in the Dakotas and southeastern Canadian prairies were vastly improved thanks to a series of late-winter and spring storms. In contrast, Montana and the western Canadian prairies continued to show signs of drought with pond numbers near or slightly below historical averages.

Federal and state biologists completed the Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey in 2022 for the first time since 2019. Results from the survey revealed much as was expected given prior years of extreme drought—34.2 million ducks in the Traditional Survey Area, a 12% decline from 2019 and down 4% from the long-term average. Continuation of a multi-year drought in the western U.S. constrained local duck production, while wetland conditions from Alaska to the boreal forest made for another year of stable production. Anecdotal reports from hunters and biologists supported the overall expectation of increased production and a greater percentage of young birds in the fall flight, although local exceptions were noted. As summer turned to fall, widespread drought from California to Mississippi was the dominant theme, limiting habitat availability in major migration and wintering regions and favoring hunters with access to managed water. Mild temperatures through October provided extended hunting opportunities for northern tier states but led to lackluster early season migration. Major winter storms in November and December blasted the Midcontinent and triggered significant bird movements to southern destinations, although overflying many drought-stricken areas. In the Atlantic flyway, the combination of above average temperatures, lack of snow, and below-average ice cover on the Great Lakes impaired major bird movements and made for generally slow hunting, although isolated reports of success emerged from areas along the Atlantic coast. Warm temperatures dominated areas east of the Rockies in January, while frequent rains and periodic bouts of cold eased the drought and created new habitats that moved birds and provided hunting opportunities for those previously limited by lack of water. In the western U.S., a series of atmospheric rivers dropped record rain and mountain snow in December and January that relieved the multi-year drought, although it came at the cost of life-threatening floods and lost hunting opportunities later in the season. Avian flu emerged as a cause of widespread illness and mortality among geese, although its impacts dissipated through December. Overall, the 2022–23 waterfowl season was considered average or slightly better than average, likely owing to improved duck production and periodic favorable weather, although localized exceptions were noted across the flyways. Looking ahead to the 2023 breeding season, improved water conditions in the western U.S. bodes well for local production, while residual water from 2022 and winter snow have portions of the Dakotas primed for another year of good to excellent production. To the north, additional moisture will be required to lift the western Canadian prairies from continued drought, while more stable habitats in Alaska and the boreal forest are expected to provide normal support for duck production.

Impacts of Weather

Many factors combine to influence the abundance and distribution of waterfowl during fall and winter, including temperature, snow and ice cover, precipitation, habitat quality and quantity, fall population size (a function of breeding population and productivity), disturbance, and agricultural land use practices. These have been documented and discussed by numerous authors, including peer-reviewed scientific publications (Nichols et al. 1983Schummer et al. 2010Hagy et al. 2016) and popular magazine articles (Brasher 2019Moorman 2019Moorman 2020). Weather variables are among the most well studied and the only ones quantified in a manner that enables timely examination of how they may have influenced waterfowl distributions and hunting experiences.

This report provides a large-scale overview of biological and environmental conditions in the contiguous U.S. in 2022–23 and their potential influence on duck abundance and distribution during fall-winter. Notable among these are breeding habitat conditions, which are pivotal in determining productivity and the overall fall flight, as well as large-scale weather patterns and landscape conditions during September–January. During the non-breeding season, waterfowl movements can be southerly and northerly as well as east and west. The relative influence of these factors varies across space, time, and among waterfowl species. Descriptions herein are intended to be general in nature and are not definitive assessments of either the distribution of waterfowl at specific times and locations or the conditions that affected them.

Ducks Unlimited Podcast

Hosts Dr. Mike Brasher and Chris Jennings are joined by Dr. Heath Hagy, waterfowl ecologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for a deep dive into how this waterfowl season shaped up for Mississippi and Central Flyway hunters. The trio discuss the timeline of events from spring breeding habitat all the way through January and how changing conditions impacted specific regions. Hagy provides an in-depth perspective from the National Wildlife Refuges he surveyed throughout the season and points out key weather patterns that impacted waterfowl distribution.

Breeding Population and Habitat Conditions

Much to the relief of waterfowl hunters and managers across North America, 2022 saw the return of the Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey for the first time since 2019. Survey results revealed the consequences of multiple years of prairie drought, including near historic drought in 2021. The total duck estimate from the Traditional Survey Area (TSA; Alaska to western Ontario and south into the Dakotas and Montana) was 34.2 million, down 12% from 2019 and 4% below the long-term average (Table 1). Numbers from the Eastern Survey Area (ESA; central Ontario eastward to Newfoundland and south to Maine) were upbeat, as the 6 most intensively surveyed duck species from that area totaled 4.5 million, a 10% increase from 2019 and similar to the long-term average (Table 2).

Results on the population status of individual species were largely mixed. From the TSA, species such as gadwall, green-winged teal, and northern shoveler were down substantially from 2019 but remained near or above their long-term averages, signifying continued healthy populations. Mallard and American wigeon dropped 25% below their 2019 estimates and 10–20% below their long-term average. However, blue-winged teal and redheads were 20–35% above both their 2019 estimates and long-term average. The most alarming result was delivered by northern pintail, which fell to its lowest number in the 67-year history of the survey, 21% below 2019 and now down 54% from its long-term average. In the ESA, mallards proved to be a bright spot, up 15% from the 2019 estimate and near its long-term average, while Great Lakes mallards continued their downward slide and are now 34% below the 1991–2021 average. Meanwhile, the effects of prolonged and extreme drought in California and the Intermountain West continued to suppress local duck populations, with breeding mallards in California 31% below their long-term average.