DU Podcast Transcript: Ep. 4 – 2019 Trends in Duck Breeding Populations Survey – Blue-winged teal, Northern Pintails, Northern Shovelers

Hosts Chris Jennings and Dr. Mike Brasher are joined by Dr. Tom Moorman, DU Chief Scientist to discuss the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) report on 2019 Trends in Duck Breeding Populations, based on surveys conducted in May and early June by FWS, Canadian Wildlife Service, and other partners

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 still talking duck numbers here. We're going to go through the next few species. I've got Dr. Tom Moorman, Ducks Unlimited's chief scientist and Dr. Mike Brasher, waterfowl scientist here at Ducks Unlimited's national headquarters in Memphis. We're going to kick right off into Blue-winged Teal, which is exciting for everyone. It's kind of that time of year, it's really the first species that's up to bat for waterfowl hunters. And the numbers here, down 16%, 5.4 million, but still up 6% from the long-term average. What was your guys' first reaction when you saw that?

Tom Moorman: I was actually not too surprised given how dry that I knew and had heard and suspected that Prairie Canada had become.

Chris Jennings: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tom Moorman: So the thing about Blue-wings is they are true prairie-nesters. Predominantly, almost the entire population comes out of the prairies. The other thing about Blue-wings is they're really nomadic, which is a good thing because not all spots on the prairies are wet in all years. Blue-wings are really good about finding water and this year they're finding a lot of water in the Dakotas, in Western Montana. Where they're not finding any water in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Southern Manitoba. We have now two years of fairly dry conditions, not terribly dry, but fairly dry conditions. The population response you would expect that of a species like Blue-wings is in fact downward.

Chris Jennings: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tom Moorman: And that's what we see, so I wasn't too surprised. I'd also tell hunters don't panic because this bird can decline precipitously, if that's a word. And it can explode when water comes back.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Tom Moorman: It's always been that way. It wasn't very many years ago, we were talking about 9 million breeding Blue-wings. Yeah, we're down to 5.4 million this year. That's not great but it is also not catastrophic because they can really come back quickly.

Chris Jennings: Yeah. And one thing that's noticeable from the surveys, that percentage of blue wings in the Dakotas this year.

Mike Brasher: Yeah. That's right. We had 2.7 million settle in the Dakotas.

Chris Jennings: Wow.

Mike Brasher: 2.7, actually almost 3 million settled in the Dakotas and Montana combined. And so those are the areas that were wet.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Mike Brasher: And that's what you would expect.

Chris Jennings: That's right.

Mike Brasher: That's what Tom said about them being nomadic. And the other good thing about that is you have over half the population of Blue-wings that have settled in the area that we expect to be much more productive this year.

Chris Jennings: Yeah. So more brood survival basically.

Tom Moorman: Should be. Should be a pretty good performance by Blue-wings out of the Dakotas. That'll be contrasted a bit with poor production North, but when half the population settles out on good water conditions, there's going to be some young Blue-wings. It's just a question of, at that point, getting them bumped out of there with a little bit of a cold front for early Teal seasons and that kind of thing.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Tom Moorman: Hunters should be okay but Teal seasons can be really hit or miss, especially if you're in the mid-latitudes where they're there one day and gone the next.

Chris Jennings: Yup.

Tom Moorman: I have personally scouted holes full of Blue-wings and gone there the next day and shot nothing.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Tom Moorman: I mean it happens.

Chris Jennings: Oh yeah. And we're in that stage right now. Blue-wings are kind of hopscotching in their way down the flyway.

Tom Moorman: Absolutely.

Chris Jennings: Every little gust of North wind is going to push these birds South. Next species, we've got everyone's favorite, the Northern Shoveler. Still 39% above the long-term average, down 13% this year at 3.6 million. But also a prairie-nester.

Tom Moorman: Yup.

Chris Jennings: So very indicative of the dry conditions. Where did you see the majority of these or what were the majority of these birds? Where were they?

Tom Moorman: Well, given my farm is for Shovelers I was expecting a disparaging comment and I'll thank you for not making one so I didn't have to defend my preferences here.

Mike Brasher: Well we're not finished yet.

Tom Moorman: Yeah. Shovelers, same kind of deal as blue-wings. They settle out, they'll do well on the Dakotas. The drop in the population is purely reflective of that loss of water and wetlands in Southern Canada now for two years running. And so again, don't panic. The population remains well above its longterm average. It's a population that's really healthy and I was not really even kidding when I said they're one of my favorite bird. They're actually really cool.

Chris Jennings: Yeah. No, they're fantastic birds and I'm not going to say anything. Maybe Mike will. He's going to chime in.

Mike Brasher: Well, no. What I would say is more to prove the fact that they are one of your favorite birds, you actually have a little trophy that I believe... In your office that you've held onto for close to 10 years now, right?

Tom Moorman: Oh yeah. Probably a lot longer than that. There's a group of us who were friends in graduate school. We have the King Shoveler trophy and it moves around year by year by year.

Mike Brasher: In theory. In theory.

Tom Moorman: But it hadn't moved for about 15 or 20 now.

Chris Jennings: Is it based on how many you shoot?

Tom Moorman: It is, yeah.

Chris Jennings: Good. Yeah. Hey, that's a good prize.

Tom Moorman: It is.

Clay Baird: [ADVERTISEMENT] Be the first to know when ducks are on the move. Sign up for DU's waterfowl migration email alerts and receive ongoing in-depth updates on the latest habitat conditions, weather changes and hunting reports for your flyway. Visit ducks.org/prairienester.

Chris Jennings: All right, we'll move on to the Northern Pintail. Much more lauded bird, by some I guess, not by Tom. A very unique bird, very unique species. Unique breeding habitat needs. Down 42% over the long-term average, only down 4% from 2018, 2.2 million this year. And let's just kind of go into where's that down 42% leading to? And what are your guys' comments to people who are concerned about this bird?

Tom Moorman: Yeah, that's an ongoing discussion in the waterfowl management community. What we saw from Pintails, say from the 70s into the 80s, is that the population did really well. Of course there was a drought when they took a downturn, but there was a fundamental change in agricultural practices in the Prairie's starting in the, let's just say early to mid-nineties. A practice called fallow. And what that typically would mean is that producers up there would plant a field one year, harvest it, and then it would sit idle through the next spring. While that idle stuff grew up in, what equated to short stubby vegetation that Pintails do really well in. They're actually a short grass nesting species.

Chris Jennings: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tom Moorman: So if you take that out of the game for them, then you remove millions of acres of potential nesting habitat because farmers now crop annually and they don't do summer fallow.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Tom Moorman: So that's probably at the root of the decline over time. The question will be then, are we at a new stable population trajectory where the new reality for Pintails is more in the line of, say two to four million birds versus the five to seven that it used to be?

Chris Jennings: Mm-hm.

Tom Moorman: And then this year, the population is stable over last year. The good thing about Pintails, again a fairly nomadic bird and they're good about finding water when they can and they did and will. You see a really great response to Pintails moving into the Dakotas, based on the survey numbers. You see a really negative response in Alberta, Saskatchewan, which we typically consider the traditional core of Pintail production. Those places were dry, Pintails relocate. And this year a bunch will stop in the Dakotas. The rest probably moved up into the boreal or up into the Arctic. We're not real sure about those birds, as to whether they nest and if they do, how successful they might be.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Tom Moorman: But the ones that are the Dakotas should turn out some birds.

Chris Jennings: Good. That's good news.

Mike Brasher: And just to illustrate exactly how strong that response was this year, when you look back to 2018, the number of Pintails settled in Montana and the Dakotas was right around 500,000. This year that doubled up to about a million birds that found that water.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Mike Brasher: And settled in that more productive habitat so that's a good thing. I'd like to see what the numbers are going to be next year.

Chris Jennings: Cool. Well hey guys, I appreciate you joining me. Everyone stick with us. We got three more species to go. We're going to get into the divers next. Thanks a lot, Tom. Thanks a lot, Mike. And look forward to talking to you about these diving ducks.

Tom Moorman: Enjoyed it.

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. Until next time, stay tuned to the ducks.