DU Podcast Transcript: Ep. 3 – Pond Counts throughout U.S. and Canada, along with a Mallard Population Discussion

Dr. Tom Moorman joins the show to discuss 2019 Pond Counts throughout North America

© Michael Furtman

Clay Baird: Welcome to the Ducks Unlimited podcast. The only podcast about all things waterfowl. From hunting 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.

Chris Jennings: We're back, talking duck numbers, 2019 waterfowl population status. I've got Dr Tom Mormon, Ducks Unlimited chief scientist, Dr Mike Brazier, chief waterfowl scientist here at national headquarters. We're going to start off with pond counts. This is the habitat side of this survey. It sounds like we had a lot of water in the Dakotas, pretty dry throughout the Canadian Prairies. Sounds like there was some water in the Parklands, but waterfowl distribution here, what was your thoughts when you first saw the pond counts?

Tom Moorman: My first thought was, haven't been to Canada even before this report came out. I knew it was really dry up there and the survey confirmed what I had seen visually that in fact, Southern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba were in fact, really dry. For listeners out there, when we talk about ponds, for a frame of reference, what we're really talking about is temporary and seasonal wetlands and semi-permanent wetlands. And what that really means is, when the Fish and Wildlife Service and others are filing these surveys, they're filing a transect and they're looking down to a certain width and they're counting wetlands. So it's not really ponds per se, that's sort of a professional term that we've used for many, many years. But what they're really looking at is the number of seasonal wetlands. And when I say that, these things can go dry. Some of them go dry every year. Some of the temporary wetlands dry out every year. Some of them will dry, partially, some of them dry all the way. The critical thing then becomes in fall and winter, how much precipitation do you get? That is usually in the form of snow that blows into these depressions and melts in spring and makes water. It's pretty temporary and oftentimes really small, right? It can be a tenth or a quarter of an acre. Those are the wetlands that drive water production on a continental scale. When we see this drop in Prairie Canada, for instance, in pond numbers or wetland numbers, that translates pretty directly into less production for waterfowl.

Mike Brasher: Yeah. And the one thing that I would add to that, and this also kind of helps the listeners think about ponds and really where they fall out on the scale of North America. They are one of the primary pieces of information that you see in this report. And they actually influence some of the harvest regulations that are set every year. But those ponds are enumerated only in the Prairie Pothole Regions of the US and Canada. Now that region does support, during any given years, 60 to 70% of the breeding waterfowl population. But the Western Boreal Forest, the Eastern Boreal Forest and Alaska supports 30 to 40% of the waterfowl population in certain years as well. And wetlands are not enumerated in those areas. So when you hear about May ponds, just keep in mind that it's only those that occur in the Prairie Pothole Region.

Chris Jennings: Yeah, that's a very good point. And just to hit on that number, in 2019 it looks like there were 4.9 million counted. Which is down 5% from last year.

Tom Moorman: It is. So this year is really an interesting year, and we see this almost every year on the Prairie's. The water is located somewhere where it was not the year before. It's really unusual to have a complete drought or a completely wet Prairie ecosystem. This year, the Southern parts of the Canadian provinces in the Prairies were dry, but low and behold, the Dakotas and Western Montana got lots of rain and snow and so they're really wet. A year like that, typically what happens is, for some species of waterfowl that are a bit more nomadic, Pin Tail's, Blue Wings, Gadwalls in particular, they'll settle out in the Dakotas and possibly have a decent year. Other species that go back to the same wetlands year in year out -- Cans, Red Heads. In Southern Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the core Can production probably not going to be great because a lot of those wetlands dried up. So the adults will go back, if they don't find conditions then they'll just forego breeding here.

Mike Brasher: Yeah. The other thing is, when we look across those Southern Prairie provinces, it is actually sort of the second year of dry conditions in those survey regions. So from that you can probably draw some expectations on low productivity really, for all the birds that are going to settle in those areas.

Tom Moorman: One last point, because it's important is, it's not necessarily a bad thing for those wetlands to go dry.

Chris Jennings: That is a good point.

Tom Moorman: Because when they dry out, they grow up a bunch of vegetation and when the water comes back that vegetation dies and that dead vegetation is the source of all the bugs and invertebrates that female ducks are going to use. And that's why we get these explosions of productivity and successful nesting in really wet years after a drought.

Chris Jennings: And that's why, you know, we've mentioned South Dakota was really dry last year.

Tom Moorman: That's right.

Chris Jennings: And this year it should be booming.

Chris Jennings: That's great.

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Chris Jennings: Let's go ahead and get ready right into it. We're talking individual species here and we'll kind of go through the list. In mallards, 2019, 9.4 million. That is a 2% increase from 2018. Not super significant, but I think everyone is pleased to see that Mallard number stay very stable.

Tom Moorman: Yeah, I guess what I'd tell you about a 2% increase is it's not something a hunter would ever probably notice, but it is a good sign that the population held at least stable. Now the real question will be how well does that population produce this spring? And it's pretty fair to assume that in birds that settled in Prairie Canada might not do very well if they flew North into what we would call the Prairie Parklands. That band of more permanent wetlands that is just North of the Prairies. They'll do really well. And that's always good Mallard country and then in the Dakotas, Mallard should do really well.

Chris Jennings: That's great.

Tom Moorman: And so it's going to be a mix.

Chris Jennings: Yeah. And we kind of touched on the fact that, looking at where that Mallard distribution was, you kind of had a very unique look at the distribution. You had a third of them in the US Prairies, a third of them in the Canadian Prairies. Then you had another third that were in the Parklands and Boreal. Which is pretty unique for that distribution.

Mike Brasher: It is, it's pretty unique in general for Dabbling Ducks that settle in the Prairie's typically I think about 30, 35% up and going to settle on the Canadian portion of the Prairies. And then the US portion is going to be 24, 25%. But this year they were about equal between Canada and the US. Mallards were particularly interesting in their distribution pattern that they responded incredibly strong to the distribution ofMay ponds. When you look at the report here in those areas where we saw increases in pond numbers, we also saw increases in Mallard numbers.In the areas where we saw decreases in pond numbers, we saw decreases in Mallards. The exception would be Southern Manitoba where we didn't really see a change in Mallard numbers there. But an important thing to point out there for Southern Manitoba is it was dry still from last yeah, and to pull out an interesting quote, what I thought was interesting from the report from one of the survey biologist's, said these are some of the driest conditions Manitoba has seen in many years. So that kind of gives you an index to really the type of conditions that they experienced there.

Chris Jennings: Yeah. Well hey, I think everyone out there is just a satisfied with really strong Mallard number and the long term average still 19% above so everyone's happy with that. Again, this doesn't necessarily translate to anything on the hunting side. This is purely population status type information, but appreciate you guys coming on with me and if you guys want to join us tomorrow or the next show on the next podcast, I'll have Tom and Mike on to discuss other species. We are going to go all the way down the list. Thanks guys.

Clay Baird: Thank you for listening to this episode of the DUpodcast. 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. Until next time, stay tuned to the ducks.