By Paul Davis, WF360 Mississippi Alluvial Valley Migration Editor
With the second half of the Mississippi duck season in full swing, waterfowlers are hoping for some cold weather to boost duck populations, which have been spotty and relatively low this year.
“We need some weather — a good, long-lasting cold shot,” says Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fish & Parks Waterfowl Program Biologist Darrin Hardesty.
Houston Havens, the state’s waterfowl program coordinator, agrees, saying “hopefully, we’re going to get some of that weather to get birds moving around. We want to pick up more birds as we continue through the season and have more weather that’s going to cause them to move around.”
Duck numbers from the state’s most recent survey in the Mississippi Delta region, Havens says, are below average to varying degrees.
“Our mallard numbers were a little below our long-term average at a little over 100,000, and other dabbling ducks were probably the more surprising number. They were pretty well below our long-term average for the December survey at 176,000 birds,” Havens says.
Diving duck estimates can vary greatly, depending not only on their population, but also which random transect lines are flown during the surveys.
“Our diving ducks were a little below average but still pretty close to it at a little over 100,000,” Havens notes.
Overall, Havens estimates the total duck population in the delta at “a shade under 400,000,” while the long-term average is around 560,000.
Not only are the state’s hunters facing lower duck numbers at this point, Mississippi’s ducks, Hardesty says, are spread out because of all the water in the region.
“I would venture to say that our wildlife management areas, at the beginning of the season, were carrying the majority of birds for the state, and now the WMAs don’t really have a lot of birds on them,” Hardesty says. “We’ve had a lot of rain of late and there’s a lot of water on the landscape, so the birds that are here are pretty dispersed.”
With the current lower bird numbers and abundant water, especially along the Mississippi River, Hardesty says, many hunters have been comparing this season to last year.
“This year has mimicked almost everything we had last year, with warm weather and a lot of water, so I think they’re kind of comparing it to last year,” he says. “They’re not entirely disappointed, because Mississippi’s hunters understand it’s a weather issue and we have a lot of water on the landscape.”
Ducks also seem to be found in spotty concentrations, not something typically seen in late December and into January.
“It seems like maybe that gregarious activity, where birds just want to be in large concentrations, has extended a little bit later than we usually see it,” Havens says. “We would expect in January for birds to start splitting off and getting into smaller groups and into those pair-bonding type areas.”
That is beginning to happen, Hardesty says, at least in some locations.
“I have seen some areas in the timber where there’s a good number of birds, and you can tell that they are kind of pairing, the mallards in particular,” he says.
For hunters, and ducks, the best region of the state year in and year out, Havens says, is the northeastern portion of the delta.
It’s “historically our better area, no matter if we have low duck numbers or high duck numbers,” he says, “and we believe it’s a combination of intensive private land management and quality public lands. It’s a large-scale cooperative among public and private land managers there, and the birds have a lot of options.”
Havens remains hopeful.
“Past surveys have shown us that our peak estimates for the Mississippi Delta are going to come in the early January or late January survey period,” he says. “We’re still optimistic that we’re going to capture peak migration, but if we don’t see an increase from here on, that would start to be a little more concerning.”