Delta Waterfowl Forecasts a Strong Fall Duck Flight

Excellent breeding conditions in the Dakotas and Manitoba helped produce an abundance of ducks, which should benefit hunters this season

“Conditions were good in key regions for breeding ducks, and production was strong overall. If we get a few timely cold fronts, then it could be a truly memorable season.” — Dr. Frank Rohwer, president of Delta Waterfowl

BISMARCK, NORTH DAKOTA — Delta Waterfowl forecasts that a mix of average to above average breeding conditions in the prairie pothole region, combined with a stable population of breeding ducks, will result in a strong fall flight for the upcoming waterfowl season. Importantly, The Duck Hunters Organization expects improved flights of dabbling ducks over 2019, especially for blue-winged teal, mallards and gadwalls.

Delta’s analysis is delivered despite cancellation of the 2020 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey — a key barometer of the fall flight that’s otherwise been conducted annually since 1955 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service. Fortunately, a survey was successfully conducted in an all-important region for nesting waterfowl: The North Dakota Game and Fish Department estimated a statewide breeding population of 4 million ducks, an 18 percent increase over 2019.

“The Service’s cancellation of the survey due to Covid-19 means we don’t have estimates of breeding duck populations or pond (wetland) counts this year,” said Dr. Frank Rohwer, president of Delta Waterfowl. “However, a far more important metric for predicting a quality hunting season is duck production — that’s the overriding factor in whether we’ll see a good fall flight.”

Based on long-term data indicating that most duck populations are well above average (including a 2019 estimate of 38.9 million breeding ducks, 10 percent above average), and the breeding habitat conditions observed across critical regions this spring, Delta concludes that most duck species experienced good to great production. Overall, Delta estimates that spring habitat conditions were excellent in the Dakotas, very good in Manitoba, good in Alberta and poor in Saskatchewan.

Therefore duck production among species likely varied based on their regional preferences.

Delta expects that mallards took advantage of wet conditions in the Dakotas and prairie Manitoba, which will send plenty of greenheads down the Central and Mississippi flyways. This was reflected in the North Dakota survey, which estimated 872,982 breeding mallards, the 18th highest index recorded.

“Mallards almost never have a terrible year because their nesting range is massive, and they renest aggressively throughout the breeding season,” Rohwer said. “I don’t think it will be a phenomenal fall mallard flight, but it should be very good.”

The Dakota prairies are the core breeding range of blue-winged teal, which spells good news for early teal seasons. Bluewings increased 58 percent in the North Dakota survey.

“Bluewings were off the charts in the Dakotas and should in turn provide an outstanding fall flight,” Rohwer said. “Green-winged teal are more challenging to predict, but they typically nest farther north in the stable wetlands of the Canadian parklands and boreal forest. It’s rare for greenwings to have a bad year.”

Delta anticipates an average fall flight of gadwalls. Roughly 50 percent of the population nests in prairie Saskatchewan, where conditions suffered from low precipitation, while the other half settles in the Dakotas. Breeding gadwalls climbed 6.16 percent to 440,379 birds in the North Dakota survey.

The news is less favorable for pintails, as conditions were well below average in prairie Saskatchewan — the traditional heart of the pintail’s breeding range. However, an increasing ratio of pintails have settled in the Dakotas in recent years in response to vastly better wetland conditions.

“If enough pintails nested in the U.S. prairies, it could help offset the drier conditions in Canada,” Rohwer said. “Regardless I don’t expect a good year for pintails. This wasn’t the spring we needed to get them back on track.”

Wigeon are believed to have had an average nesting season, given conditions in their preferred prairie Canada breeding grounds.

Delta expects a decreased fall flight of canvasbacks due to the poor nesting conditions in the Saskatchewan parklands.

“The canvasbacks that nested in Manitoba will fare better, but it’s just not going to be a good year for cans,” Rohwer said. “They’re very inflexible nesters and will fly right past good water in the Dakotas to reach the Canadian parklands.”

Redheads are far more adaptable in their habits based on the presence of water, which they found plenty of in the Dakotas. Though redheads declined in the North Dakota survey by 11.64 percent, their breeding population estimate of 203,121 birds remains a whopping 72.34 percent above the long-term average.

“The Dakotas will give redheads a much better fall flight than canvasbacks,” Rohwer said. “Even more cans than normal settled in the Dakotas, though not in any significant numbers.”

Production of bluebills is likely to differ between lessers and greaters. Lesser scaup are predicted to have had a decent nesting season in the U.S. and Canadian prairies, climbing 39.62 percent in the North Dakota survey to 275,190. However, greater scaup have experienced poor success in northern Canada’s boreal forest for many years, and 2020 was probably no exception.

“Scaup nest in the uplands, which is unique among divers,” Rohwer said. “I suspect that increasing predator populations are among the reasons they’re doing so lousy in the boreal.”

A close relative of bluebills, ring-necked ducks are expected to have furthered their upward-trending population this spring.

“I’m sure ringnecks kept doing what they do — increasing,” Rohwer said. “They’re spreading south from the western boreal forest, finding relatively stable water conditions in the Canadian parklands and replacing bluebills big time.”

Conditions in the Atlantic Flyway were good to very good in eastern Canada and average in the northeastern U.S. Production of eastern mallards — a population that’s been in decline — was likely strong, particularly in Canada. Good nesting conditions were also present for black ducks, ring-necked ducks and wood ducks.

In the Pacific Flyway, drought conditions returned to the western U.S., most notably impacting California’s sizable population of breeding mallards. Farther north, average conditions were available to nesting ducks in British Columbia, and Alaska was in excellent shape this spring — together, the regions should provide good fall flights of mallards, pintails, green-winged teal and wigeon.

Overall, there should be plenty of ducks winging south in the months ahead. That’s noteworthy for waterfowlers, because a large fall flight — particularly one consisting of ample numbers of naïve, juvenile ducks — is essential to a successful waterfowl season.

“That’s especially true in the southern United States,” Rohwer said. “In years when duck production is poor, Texas, Louisiana and other states experience years like the dismal 2018-2019 season. I don’t think that will be the case this fall. Conditions were good in key regions for breeding ducks, and production was strong overall. If we get a few timely cold fronts, then it could be a truly memorable season.”

For more information, contact John Devney, senior vice president (888) 987-3695 ext. 5218, jdevney@deltawaterfowl.org, or Dr. Frank Rohwer, president (888) 987-3695 ext. 5217, frohwer@deltawaterfowl.org.

Delta Waterfowl Foundation is The Duck Hunters Organization, a leading conservation group working to produce ducks and ensure the tradition of duck hunting in North America. Visit deltawaterfowl.org.