DU Podcast Transcript: Bonus Episode – Arkansas Waterfowl Program Coordinator Discusses Survey, Ducks, Habitat

Luke Naylor, AGFC waterfowl program coordinator, joins the show to discuss Arkansas duck numbers

© Michael Furtman

Clay Baird: Welcome to the Ducks Unlimited Podcast, the only podcast about all things waterfowl; from planning insights to science based discussions about ducks, geese and issues affecting waterfowl and wetlands conservation in North America. We bring the resource to you. The DU Podcast with your host, Chris Jennings and Dr. Mike Brasher.

Chris Jennings: Today, we've got a special guest and a special episode here kind of focusing on Arkansas. We have Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Waterfowl Program Coordinator, Luke Naylor joining the show. Welcome to the show, Luke.

Luke Naylor: Thanks for having me, Chris. Glad to be here.

Chris Jennings: Awesome. Also joining me is Dr. Mike Brasher, my co-host here, and Luke. One thing that we want to start out with, and we're just going to dive right into the numbers side of this. I think everyone was pretty fired up for the Arkansas opener on November 23rd. You guys had done the survey, but we really hadn't gotten a chance to digest it by the time the opener came around, but we have the chance now. Can you kind of share what some of those numbers reflected when you guys did the aerial survey?

Luke Naylor: You bet. Yeah. So short answer is about average. We typically, in November, have about a quarter million mallards in the Delta and that's right at the number we hit this year, just under 250,000 and just under 700,000 total ducks in the Delta. So a little light there on total ducks, but no major drop. Always balanced expectations with what we actually see out there on the landscape and this is one of those years where three major cold fronts, one record setting, kind of set things up, had people thinking maybe numbers would be a little bit higher than that. I thought they'd be a little bit higher than that when we ended up doing this count. This again, was was flown the week right proceeding the week of duck season. So we typically try to get this done before the duck season starts. Yeah, I didn't see anything remarkable, like no huge numbers of birds. Major concentrations were fairly limited to a few regions of the state. Again, just about right at a 10 year average.

Chris Jennings: Yeah, that's perfect. I'd explained it, I had heard... I think with the early cold fronts, people got super excited, like the hunters got super excited and maybe saw a few birds here, a few birds there. But the reports that I was getting was everything from my cousins, uncles, brother has more ducks on his property than he's ever had in his whole life, to we haven't seen a duck yet this year. So it sounds like it's right smack dab in the middle.

Luke Naylor: Yeah, it is. I think folks really just depends on where you are and we're trying to keep track of the duck populations at a very large scale, much larger scale than most hunters experience.

Chris Jennings: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Luke Naylor: They're mostly familiar with that spot they hunt. A lot of folks these days of course travel. So there are a lot of hunters out there who have a really pretty broad perspective, but it's still a fair bit different than getting up on an airplane and systematically flying across all major waterfowl areas within the Delta, which frankly, much of the Arkansas Delta is potential waterfowl habitat. So when we step back and really get to this big picture view, it may not match exactly what a particular hunter's seeing here or there, either better or worse, but it gives us a good idea of what's going out there at the large scale. I think your comments are similar to what I've been hearing so far after this first 10 day segment of duck season ended that we got some people generally doing pretty well, maybe better than last year. Some people are doing really well. I don't think there's any major losers, if you will, this year of people are really not doing great at all.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Luke Naylor: So maybe we're kind of hitting right there in the middle and off to a decent start this year.

Mike Brasher: Hey, Luke. This is Mike. You mentioned a minute ago something about scale and how that's important in this and frequent listeners of this podcast, we've only been doing this for a couple of months now, but those that have been listening will know that we've had other state waterfowl biologists, some of your counterparts North and South of you there in the Mississippi flyway, on to discuss results from their surveys. As I'm sure you share this, I know all of our other waterfowl biologists share this, there's this sense of frustration when we get asked the question of, where are the ducks and why aren't they here? And these sorts of unmet expectations as you described based on what the weather was going to do. That's just really frustrating to not be able to give exact answers as a scientist or as someone trained in the biology of waterfowl. So these surveys that are conducted up and down the Mississippi flyway, or at least sort of the lower half of the Mississippi flyway, that's just sort of the way... those are the states that have invested their resources into doing these surveys this time of year.

Mike Brasher: Despite that information, we still can't really say exactly where all the birds are because we've had some of the other biologists on, they'll talk about, "Well, it wasn't exactly what we expected. We saw some numbers that were a little different than what we might've predicted," but then you can look at some of the things that might influence that. So basically what I'm getting to is I want to give you the same as we've given some of the other biologists, an opportunity to describe the surveys because I think that's really important. Larry has talked about this from Louisiana's perspective. It's really important for people to understand the nature of these surveys in order to understand exactly what the data are saying, the scale at which they're relevant to. Despite all the work that we're doing to try and understand, there's still a lot of places that we capture on the survey. So from the Arkansas survey, share a little bit about the nature of these, how they're conducted and where they're conducted.

Luke Naylor: Yeah, sure. So not as long of a period of record is what we've got, of course Larry has they're in the coastal zone survey in Louisiana and a few other places throughout the country. Mississippi is about 15 plus years into their formal survey throughout the Mississippi Delta, which are surveys, you could say, are patterned on to some degree. Yu could say they're patterned on the the D pop breeding population survey as well. Just a simple stratified transect based surveys. We took the Delta and there was one of our mutual colleagues, Ken Rinekey, years and years ago had done a couple of these different surveys throughout the entire Mississippi Alluvial Valley and had laid out a few zones based kind of on professional opinion and known waterfowl habitat and duck concentrations. We took that and refined it about 10 years ago and broke down our stratification by watershed.

Luke Naylor: We took the Mississippi Mississippi Alluvial Valley of Arkansas, the Delta, basically everything from Little Rock to Memphis and from Missouri to Louisiana, and looked at that and saw that, Wow, you can take a look at a Delta of Arkansas and see these major river corridors generally flowing North to South, that really, not bisect but multi-sect, it's not a word I don't think. But anyway, they kind of cut through the whole Delta and they make these natural breaks, which we kind of think of as these watersheds. So we restratifed the entire Delta into these 11 strata that we now sample across east-west transects. We designed transects that typically run... We want to transect generally to run perpendicular to the major land forms, which again are these North South rivers and different watercourses. So we have a bunch of east-west transects. Then we sample by strata.

Luke Naylor: So we have band sampling where we sample more transects, more transect links technically, in strata where we have seen more ducks historically, more duck habitat historically. We're trying to get our most precise and accurate estimate within each strata. Then those estimates that can then be used to drive a Delta-wide estimate of duck populations with majors of variance, so how much are we off?

Mike Brasher: Yeah.

Luke Naylor: ... plus or minus some amount, which is important because previously, we like many states, Arkansas's just been doing simple cruise surveys, we call them, where we go to just essentially get up in an airplane and fly around and go to known spots or maybe divert off to this location. If we see a concentration of ducks, try to count those ducks, assume we're counting all of them, but knowing full well we're not a, but having no measure of how far we're off from what we presented be reality. These more systematic surveys are designed to generate us a precise and accurate estimate within the Delta and carry that out through time. Now we have about a little over 10 years into that now, so created a pretty good period of record here that tells us... We're very confident in these estimates of duck populations throughout the totally mallards and total ducks, getting down in individual species, things like that. A little more complicated, but for mallards and total ducks, we feel pretty strongly that this is a pretty well designed survey.

Mike Brasher: Yeah. So very briefly, methodologically here, tell me if I have this correct and I want to expand on this transect nature just a little bit so make sure folks understand it. When you fly these transects, you're in an airplane, you have observers and you're counting some distance off of each side of the plane. Is it like an eighth of a mile for you guys?

Luke Naylor: Yeah, 250 meter strips on the ground.

Mike Brasher: Oh, okay. So then you fly these transects within these watersheds that you've defined there, and this is all a statistically based, statistically founded. The transects that you've flown, that you flew and on which you counted ducks, that area represents some percentage of that overall watershed. Let's say for simplistic sake, it's 1% of that watershed. I don't know what your actual percentage is, but let's just say for simplicity, it's 1%. If you counted a thousand ducks along the total of those transects in that watershed, you would take that thousand ducks and multiply it by a hundred right?

Luke Naylor: Correct.

Mike Brasher: That's the extrapolation that occurs. That's the simplest way of explaining how transect based surveys work. You're sampling and counting birds on a small fraction of the landscape because you have to. You can't afford to do it across the entire landscape. Then you multiply it by an expansion factor, but then you're also able to get these estimates of confidence. Anyway, I think there's a lot of misunderstanding in some ways and part of it is just because the states conduct their surveys differently. So I want to give every state an opportunity to clarify that for them.

Chris Jennings: And Luke, one thing that you've pointed out is that a guy may just be sitting in his blind and he's reporting what he's seeing in front of his blind and he may only be hunting a 25 acre rice field, and he's saying, "Hey, there's no ducks over here," and I think that that's the one thing to point out is that those ducks could be three miles just to the West of him and there could be 100,000 of them. He's just not seeing him, but you guys are seeing them from the air, or a certain number of them I should say. So that kind of helps clarify to the people who would argue with the survey, per se.

Mike Brasher: But there's some element of randomness in this too. It's statistically rigorous, but that's just... That is a fact that cannot be overcome is that there is some randomness in this process. Luke, I think you even mentioned that in your writeup here where you talk about the estimates for some area almost likely being biased low because random transect line selection and that would just basically means that you saw a big water mallards off of the transect line, because they didn't fall on the transect line, you didn't count them. Right?

Luke Naylor: That's right. These surveys work best when habitat and duck distribution is fairly homogenous, right? Evenly distributed.

Mike Brasher: Uniform. Yeah.

Luke Naylor: Yeah. Really, if it was uniform across the landscape, these types of surveys would perform almost flawlessly, right?

Mike Brasher: Yeah, that's right.

Luke Naylor: If everything was uniform, these surveys would be optimized and there'd be essentially no variance. It'd be like, we'll be right on. They'd be accurate and precise. We know that's not true, but, yeah. By randomly selecting them, we're limiting bias the best we can. It kind of takes into account, we know these ducks are highly mobile, habitat conditions change, so kind of getting locked into... At least in the Delta, not again, the coastal zone of Louisiana is a pretty consistent habitat type as Larry there has talked about. It's different in the Delta where things are changing rapidly and ducks are moving. So by just randomly selecting and taking the human bias out of it to the best we can, you can kind of have a lot more confidence to sit back and say, " hey, look. It's not hitting your 20 acre field necessarily, but a landscape scale, it's working."

Luke Naylor: We produced those density maps, which are funny. I hear from hunters say, "Don't do those things. Why would you ever produce that? It just concentrates hunters," and other hunters and love them, and real estate agents use them in their advertisements to sell hunting properties, you know? It's kind of all over the place, but generally if you start kind of talking to people and reading the tea leaves a little bit, most of the time those hotspot maps we produce kind of match what you're hearing on the ground. They generally line up most of the time.

Mike Brasher: Well, and the people that don't want you to produce those maps are the ones that already know where the ducks are and they know those concentrations are accurate. The folks that do want them-

Luke Naylor: Exactly.

Mike Brasher: ... are learning from them. Yeah. It's a good way to depict spatially of where those bird concentrations are based on your surveys. I think Mississippi neighboring state does something very similar. We haven't had Houston Havens on yet to talk about the Mississippi surveys, but I'm sure that'll be in the future.

Chris Jennings: Yeah, we will.

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Chris Jennings: Hey Luke, one question for you. Also with the 400,000 greater white-fronted geese counted, where does that fall in your number of, I mean, do you have a longterm average that you guys are putting that up against or have I overlooked that in the survey?

Luke Naylor: No, no. That's typical. I figure you might ask that.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Luke Naylor: I hear you like to hunt geese.

Chris Jennings: I do. Yeah.

Luke Naylor: So do I.

Mike Brasher: Chris wants a separate map for geese.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Luke Naylor: I know. I know. We may get that. I have toyed around with that. Now, we don't have time to dig away down in the weeds there, but this survey we've talked about and the methodology as Mike was laying out there, yeah, we're flying along at 500 feet above ground level and geese don't like that.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Luke Naylor: Ducks stay there for the most part are they kind of flood within the same field and they kind of stay put and they fall within that limited view of the observer is looking through-

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Luke Naylor: ... their zone, if you will. Geese, they hear the airplane and they're gone.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Luke Naylor: So we don't put as much confidence in those estimates simply because of the behavior of those birds. But the observers, if geese pass through that zone, then they record those and estimate flock size and record that as an observation. We generate estimates of population size within strata and the Delta, but we've got a whole lot less confidence in those just because of that nature of those birds. I do a lot of thinking when I'm out goose hunting or duck hunting, kind of like, "Man, how could we do that for geese?" Because we're such an important state for geese now, "How could we do that?" I haven't come up with the answer yet other than flying at 10,000 feet or 2000 feet and trying to see them, but you can't see a speck in a bean field from a thousand feet, so might work for white geese.

Mike Brasher: Yeah. If you mentioned this, I was jotting down a note and I missed it, but geese are even more clumped in distribution wise than are ducks and that's why these transects also are not as great for geese.

Luke Naylor: Yeah.

Mike Brasher: The more clumped the distribution is for a certain, whatever it is you're trying to survey, the less well some of these transects are going to do unless you really ramp up the sampling and effort.

Luke Naylor: That's right. That's right.

Chris Jennings: Well Luke, let's kind of go back to just kind of wrap up the overall report here where we've kind of talked about the numbers and the survey, but overall habitat conditions. We haven't really got into that. I know that even personally, the habitat conditions have changed since this survey just based on the amount of precipitation you guys got just in the last week or so. How were the habitat conditions going into the survey and then post the first 10 days of the season? What are you hearing on the ground?

Luke Naylor: Yeah. So that was an interesting point, especially obviously some of our observers during this November survey. So that latest, that major cold front, record-setting cold front November, right a couple of weeks before this survey, I took a couple of drives to the Delta during that time and was like, "Wow. Man, there's water everywhere. Ducks all over the place. This is going to be one of those surveys in opening days of duck season just very memorable, " and that turned out to stay true in kind of the North part of the Delta. Our observer there noticed a lot of water had been trapped in fields, cotton fields, not allowed to run off, good numbers of ducks in those areas. During the survey period, really pretty opposite throughout the central Delta, including the Grand Prairie, historical stronghold for early waterfowl and waterfowl habitat and really dried up in just a week or more, a little over a week before this survey.

Luke Naylor: It just seemed, this is all anecdotes of course, but just seemed like a lot of that water that just fell on the landscape that mother nature provided just went right on down the drain and it just wasn't caught in the fields and that habitat was here today, gone tomorrow literally. That again, Chris, it has changed since that survey, so we talk about these conditions are always changing. When we did get another rain, it really spiked up some rivers. The White River's on a major jump right now. Western Arkansas, there's some places throughout the Arkansas River Valley where some smaller creeks and tributaries have really jumped up in the past of the week. Now, we got another week off here before the duck season starts back in again. But this is the time of year when we should expect those runoff events to start accumulating where water really starts loading into the system.

Luke Naylor: That's just naturally, for millennia, that's the way the systems operated. Right? That's why mallards come here in mid December through early January because that's when the habitat availability seems to peak. So really, it's kind of unfortunate that we saw that drawing out and had a fair number of ducks that maybe left or maybe they all just moved to North Arkansas, but we had 70 degrees in and South winds right before this survey too.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Luke Naylor: This whole unidirectional, that's a whole another podcast to talk about duck migration.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Luke Naylor: But what I think is a misperception, that this whole migration thing is a unidirectional, pulling out of a bucket from prey Canada.

Chris Jennings: Exactly.

Luke Naylor: These ducks are jumping back North when the conditions suit them-

Chris Jennings: Absolutely.

Luke Naylor: ... and then they jumped back South when the conditions suit them. Right? I think we saw that right before this survey. But again, they've improved a little bit. Conditions are all set, soil's saturated, trees are all dormant. They're not pulling any water out of the ground anymore. There's going to be some major runoff with every two to three inch rain we get from this point forward.

Chris Jennings: Yeah. Yeah. One thing that you kind of hit on there as far as habitat, kind of just a question that I had personally. I know with the water that remained on the landscape for so long into the summer even, how was the mass production throughout some of the main areas that you guys monitor?

Luke Naylor: Yeah. That's a complicated question because again, as we talk about variability here right, mass production and forth. Boy, that's one of those things that's... Try to wrap your head around that, you know? Well, it's just, so it's crazy. You walk within the same patch of woods and it can vary from this 20 acres to this 20 acres. Overall, kind of good we think. We've had sets that... Another whole conversation, but we're our overall forest health, productivity these places with all this prolonged spring and early summer and even late summer flooding we're getting is, it's starting to take a toll on some of these places. I think the longterm trend is definitely declining mass production and declines in the species of hardwoods that produce mast for ducks.

Chris Jennings: Yeah, I think that brings up a good point of just how many variables are involved in this.

Mike Brasher: Absolutely.

Chris Jennings: Not only just the survey methodology, but even to the mast production to water here, water not there. I think that brings a lot to our audience that this estimation is a very complicated matter like you said, then you bring in regional distribution and migration. It gets very complex, even more complex. So definitely appreciate this information. Mike, did you have any other questions?

Mike Brasher: I guess the only thing I wanted to ask is, when do y'all fly next?

Luke Naylor: December 16th, that week we'll try to get another survey done and then hopefully two more after that. So the midwinter survey traditionally flown since 1952 I think, the first week of January. We'll do that one in cooperation with lots of folks.

Mike Brasher: Yeah, and then you all have another one in late January, right?

Luke Naylor: Correct.

Mike Brasher: Yeah . The plug for the midwinter there is a good one because I know that's a topic that we will probably have an episode dedicated to that because I think a few other folks have referenced that also, but it's a much larger effort, many more states participating in that, actually more states participated in that historically than there are now. Some states have dropped out of that. But just to reiterate for some of our listeners, the folks that we're having on right now, mostly I guess all from the Mississippi flyway, and that's just an artifact of those are the states that continue to conduct these surveys outside of midwinter early January period. When we get to that mid winter period, there are states from Texas, California and I don't know who all else, some in the Atlantic flyway and a lot of others in central... Do you know how many it is, Luke? It's a couple dozen states fly that mid-winter?

Luke Naylor: Yeah. Yeah. Couple dozen I think would be a safe estimate and folks really kind of ramp up their efforts if they do kind of nominal, some hotspot counts here and there throughout the kind of periodic surveys-

Mike Brasher: Okay.

Luke Naylor: ... and then will kind of pick it up in the mid winter and really, yeah, do full scale surveys.

Mike Brasher: Yeah. The only challenge there will be we won't have all the results for that simultaneously until sometime later. I don't know how long it takes to get all of that summarized, but all the states have to submit those and-

Luke Naylor: Yeah, that'll be complicated..

Mike Brasher: Have a marathon episode where every representative participates . We'd be beat by the end of the day.

Luke Naylor: Would everybody call in?

Mike Brasher: Right.

Luke Naylor: Yeah.

Mike Brasher: I think maybe not on that. No, I think that's all. I think that's-

Chris Jennings: Cool.

Mike Brasher: ... great information. Appreciate you coming on Luke.

Chris Jennings: Yeah, Luke. Thanks for joining us today. Really appreciate it.

Luke Naylor: No problem at all.

Chris Jennings: Special thanks to Luke Naylor, the Arkansas Waterfowl Program Coordinator with Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Also, thanks to my cohost, Dr. Mike Brasher. Thanks to Clay Baird, our awesome podcast producer and thanks to you, the listener for supporting Wetlands Conservation and the DU Podcast.

Clay Baird: Thank you for listening to this episode of the DU Podcast. Be sure to rate, review and subscribe to the show and visit www.ducks.org/dupodcast for resources based on today's topics, as well as access to more episodes. Opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect those of Ducks Unlimited. Until next time, stay tuned to the ducks.