By Paul Davis, WF360 Mississippi Alluvial Valley Migration Editor
For weeks, duck hunters in southeast Missouri have been hoping for a big push of fresh ducks into the region, and while a strong cold front Monday held promise, a large influx of new birds never really materialized.
“We may have gotten a little bit of a push of birds, but we may have traded some out, too,” says Missouri Department of Conservation Wetlands Ecologist Frank Nelson, who compiles the department’s weekly waterfowl counts. “It looks like we’re down a little bit, and our abundance, overall, has been fairly low compared to the last several years.”
Statewide, Nelson reports duck numbers this week are estimated at 400,000, which is actually a 20-percent decrease from the half million counted over the previous five weeks. “The five-year average is 800,000, and the minimum is right around where we’re at,” he says.
Looking at the migration curve, “it’s kind of depressed,” Nelson says, “and I’d say a lot of duck hunters are probably depressed, too.”
Some of the blame, he says, could be placed on an earlier than normal migration, with many birds already having passed through the state.
The previous five weeks, Nelson claims, have been “the typical period of waterfowl abundance in Missouri, and usually the second and third weeks of December are when we start to freeze up in the north and lose some birds.”
Surveys on southeast Missouri’s managed wetlands this week, Nelson says, showed 38,000 ducks at the Otter Slough Conservation Area, 9,500 at the Duck Creek Conservation Area, nearly 36,000 at the Mingo National Wildlife Refuge, and 39,000 on Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area. Mallards make up the vast majority of the bird counts at about 80 percent, while about six percent are gadwalls, four percent are pintails, three percent are green-winged teal and shovelers, and the rest are other species. Species composition, however, varies from area to area.
“We’re not holding the ducks we usually do,” says MDC biologist Nicky Walker at Duck Creek Conservation Area. “They’re in the area, they’re just at Mingo.”
That’s because Mingo, which sits adjacent to Duck Creek, has a lot of flooded bottomland hardwood timber, Nelson says, and that’s where late-season ducks prefer to be.
“They’re starting to pair up,” he says. “They are looking not only for thermal cover, but also cover from the competition. Those shrub/scrub habitats and timber locations are just more attractive.”
With a lack of fresh birds for several weeks now, southeast Missouri hunters have been dealing with stale, wise birds, a situation reminiscent of last year’s forgettable season.
“They’re not really working well,” says MoMallards.com’s Neal Bradley, who hunts primarily in flooded rice fields in the Bootheel. “They’re going out to feed late at night, and every morning when we get to the pits in the dark, we can hear the birds in the fields.”
Bradley says he has been having some success by using larger spreads of decoys, noting it “seems like in these fields, the more you can put out, the better. I guess there’s safety in numbers.”
Still, he describes hunting as very “hit or miss. If you’re in the right spot, you can do well. If not, you’re not going to see a whole lot.”
Mike Wilburn hunts several days a week and says, simply, “We need some new birds. It’s been pretty slow, and now the ducks at Otter Slough don’t move until quitting time.”
Monday’s weather front, Wilburn says, did spur some movement and an uptick in the daily bird-per-hunter average.
Despite the conditions, he says, “It’s better than last year, and everybody I talk to is killing a few here and there. I don’t hear anybody complaining like last year, so I guess they’re taking just enough to keep them happy.”
Instead of wishing for more cold fronts from the north, as is normal, Nelson suggests hunters may instead want to hope for south winds and warmer temperatures to bring ducks back up the flyway.
“At this point, some warm weather wouldn’t hurt,” he says.