With the final weeks of the off-season ticking down, waterfowl hunters everywhere are anticipating release of the USFWS Waterfowl Breeding Duck Population and Habitat Survey, expected next month. The report is a key predictor of the size of the fall flight, and will be used to determine bag limits and season lengths for the 2018-2019 waterfowl season.
In the meantime, state breeding duck population surveys conducted by California, North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin offer a glimpse at what we could see when the USFWS survey is released. News from the states is mixed. There’s cause for optimism for some species and regions, while the results are disappointing elsewhere. Here’s a summary of the reports.
Of vital importance to Mississippi and Central flyway hunters, North Dakota’s May survey estimated 2.95 million breeding ducks, down 15 percent from 2016, and dropping below 3 million for the first time since 1994. Still, the estimate is the 24th highest since surveys began in 1948, and remains 23 percent above the long-term average.
“Fortunately, we still have a lot of ducks,” said Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Bumps were observed among canvasbacks, which increased 23 percent, and for pintails, up 5 percent. Mallards remain relatively stable, down 5 percent. Redheads increased 2 percent, while shovelers were unchanged. Ruddy ducks, down 36 percent, showed the largest decrease.
All other ducks were 16 percent to 28 percent below 2016 estimates. However, most species remain well above long-term averages.
The estimate of temporary and seasonal wetlands was higher than last year, but Szymanski says that doesn’t tell the whole story.
“Last year’s water index was very low during our survey, and was followed by a lot of rain in late spring,” he said. “When you combine that with winter snow melt, the temporary and seasonal wetlands had water during the survey, but were struggling to hang on. It’s been quite dry since we did the survey, and once again those wetlands are dry.”
Szymanski said duck production in North Dakota will likely be lowered by the dry conditions affecting essentially all but the northeast and northern portions of the state.
“We’ve lost a lot of nesting cover since 2007, and now we are going into summer without much water,” he said. “I just don’t think the ducks will have very good production in a lot of areas.”
Golden State waterfowl, especially mallards, have declined in recent years because of severe drought. However, adequate rainfall leading into this spring fueled high hopes of a promising survey. Unfortunately, some of California’s breeding population estimates are disappointing.
The state’s total breeding duck estimate — more than half of which was comprised of mallards, gadwalls and cinnamon teal — fell 5 percent from 2016, placing it 28 percent below the long-term average.
Mallards declined by 25 percent, from an estimate of 263,774 to 198,392, putting them 42 percent below the long-term average. The largest decrease occurred in the Sacramento Valley region, where the mallard estimate was 31,000 birds, a record low that is also 73 percent below the long-term average.
Gadwalls increased 23 percent, yet remain 16 percent below the long-term average. Cinnamon teal climbed 12 percent, putting them 18 percent below the long-term average.
In better news, the pintail population estimate of 23,162 is a 123 percent increase over 2016, and 228 percent above the long-term average. Sizable increases were also observed among shovelers, redheads, ring-necked ducks, lesser scaup and buffleheads.
“Given the abundant precipitation, one might expect the numbers to be higher,” the California Department of Fish and Wildlife wrote in a press release. “In some parts of the state, it did indeed increase available habitat (uplands and ponds). But in many areas, last winter’s heavy rains largely resulted in deep, fast-flowing water, which is not ideal for dabbling ducks.”
Breeding population estimates in Minnesota show varied results for several duck species.
“Mallard and blue-winged teal counts declined some from last year, but we saw some increases in other species like ring-necked ducks, wood ducks and hooded mergansers,” said Steve Cordts, Minnesota DNR waterfowl specialist. “However, there is always considerable variability in the annual estimates. The survey is designed for mallards and our breeding mallard population remains near its long-term average.”
Total duck abundance, excluding bluebills, was 636,000, which is 19 percent lower than last year and 3 percent above the long-term average.
The mallard estimate of 214,000 is 15 percent below last year and 6 percent below the long-term average measured since 1968. Bluewings fell 51 percent, settling at 25 percent below the long-term average.
Bluebills increased 39 percent to 77,000, putting them 27 percent above the long-term average.
The combined populations of other species, including ringnecks, wood ducks, gadwalls, shovelers, canvasbacks and redheads is 263,000, an increase of 23 percent and 48 percent above the long-term average.
Breeding conditions were relatively good in Minnesota this year, with the wetland estimate increasing by 20 percent over 2016, and 5 percent above the long-term average.
The Wisconsin state survey should bring optimism to Badger State waterfowlers. The total breeding duck population estimate of 479,099 is a 23 percent increase over 2016, and 9 percent above the long-term average (1973-2017).
Of Wisconsin’s three species-specific estimates, blue-winged teal showed the largest jump, increasing 125 percent to 85,526, which is still 20 percent below the long-term average. Mallards increased 10 percent to 180,930, which is statistically equal to the long-term average, yet lower than many estimates achieved in the past decade. A stable wood duck population increased 14 percent to 102,397, climbing to 28 percent above the long-term average.
The estimate for other ducks — common goldeneyes, ring-necked ducks, green-winged teal, pintails, shovelers and more — was 110,246, a 12 percent increase and 72 percent above the long-term average.
Wisconsin waterfowl benefitted from ample precipitation, which caused flooding in several areas this spring.
“A very mild winter in 2016-17, combined with above-normal rainfall in March and April, led to wet conditions throughout Wisconsin,” the Wisconsin DNR wrote in a press release. “Rainfall in May following the survey helped Wisconsin remain at above-average wetland conditions for the year during the important brood-rearing period. Wetland conditions remained above average for brood rearing, and Wisconsin is expected to provide good duck production in 2017.”
What will be revealed by the USFWS duck survey? Stay tuned to DeltaWaterfowl.org and Delta’s social media channels — Facebook, Instagram and Twitter — for breaking news and expert analysis of survey results.