All across Oklahoma, avid waterfowl hunters are ready and eagerly waiting for the regular duck and goose seasons to open.
Will it be a good year? Will the weather cooperate? Will we have water in our lakes?
Those are the questions that plague Sooner State waterfowlers every year, for so much depends on weather and rainfall patterns both during the seasons and in the months leading up to them.
And it’s not just the local weather and rainfall we need be concerned with. In the springtime, we fret over what’s happening up in the Canadian Prairie Provinces and in the Dakotas and adjacent states where the prairie pothole breeding grounds produce almost all of the ducks that eventually migrate through Oklahoma.
There are 64 million acres in the U.S. portion of the Prairie Pothole Region, plus much more in Canada, where most of the Central Flyway and Mississippi Flyway birds are produced each spring.
Thanks to money that hunters pay for federal duck stamps, and thanks to the money they contribute to waterfowl-oriented conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited, millions of acres of important breeding grounds are protected from abusive agricultural practices, unnecessary draining, etc. to ensure that the nation’s “duck factory” is protected.
Still, with the exception of scattered small units that can be filled with water by pumping from rivers, most of the breeding grounds are dependent on snowmelt and springtime rains to provide enough water to make the nesting habitat viable each spring.
One interesting item that appeared last spring was an article in the technical journal “BioScience,” which reported that “new research shows that the (prairie pothole) region appears to be much more sensitive to climate warming and drying than previously thought.”
The article quoted a U.S. Geological Survey researcher who cautioned that, if predicted climate changes hold true, ducks may not have enough time to successfully raise their hatchlings to flight stage before the shallow prairie potholes dry up each year.
Most dabbling ducks, like mallards and teal, need 80 to 110 days of surface water in order to raise their young and for the adults to complete their molting and re-feathering process. The adults are flightless for a while during molting, making them especially vulnerable to predators if they can’t escape by swimming.
Based on the pothole condition reports last spring, though, duck breeding conditions were pretty good in the Manitoba and Saskatchewan provinces, even though parts of Alberta were “currently in the grip of its driest back-to-back years on record since the 1880s.” In Alberta, precipitation between Nov. 1, 2009 and March 31, 2010, “was generally below average and less than 40 percent of normal.”
The bad conditions in Alberta are more likely to affect the High Plains portions of the Central Flyway, out in the Oklahoma Panhandle.
Most of Oklahoma gets birds hatched in Manitoba and Saskatchewan where conditions were still a little drier than average, but deemed adequate to provide nesting conditions throughout the season.
OK, enough about the breeding grounds. Let’s look at the conditions that attract and keep ducks in Oklahoma for a while during their southward migration.
Wetlands equal waterfowl. And Oklahoma does not have an abundance of natural wetlands.
What we do have, though, is one of the greatest concentrations of manmade surface water features in the nation. That includes numerous large reservoirs ranging from a few hundred acres to more than 100,000 acres each, plus an estimated 200,000-plus “farm ponds” that account for more than 500,000 acres of water.
The Oklahoma Water Resources Board says that we have 1,120 square miles of surface water. That’s a lot of water to provide resting places for migrating ducks and geese.
And what may be more important than the actual acreage is that Oklahoma has 11,600 miles of shoreline habitat — almost equal to all of North Americas seaboard shorelines.
But what those numbers by themselves don’t indicate is that conditions change from month to month and from year to year. Depending on rainfall, and on the use of water for irrigation, flood control, generating electricity and providing adequate navigable water in the Arkansas River navigation system, the surface acreage can grow and shrink, and the shoreline conditions can change drastically from season to season.
I remember a conversation I had with the then-chief of the Wildlife Department’s Game Division (Now the Wildlife Division), back in the 1970s. I was concerned about acutely dry nesting conditions in the northern breeding grounds that year, but he cautioned me not to be too alarmed. “It’ll affect us eventually,” he said, “but if we have water in Oklahoma this fall, we’ll have ducks.”
And, he added, “It doesn’t matter if they have a record-breaking year on the breeding grounds. If it’s too dry in Oklahoma, the ducks will pass us by as fast as they can.”
Let’s look at just one big Oklahoma reservoir as an example. The “normal” pool level at Lake Eufaula covers about 102,000 acres. But, depending on how much water is flowing into the lake from its major feeder streams, how much water is coming from local rainfall, and how much water is being released daily through the dam, the lake can expand or shrink by thousands of acres. That marginal area, chiefly flatter land surrounding the normal pool, is the most important area for ducks. When the lake is normal or slightly above normal in the fall and winter, there is a lot of shallow, food-rich, flooded land where dabbling ducks can both rest, and feed and where hunters can spread their decoys and conceal themselves to ambush ducks.
But if the lake is a couple of feet below normal, then those important wetlands may be dry. The smartweed and other food-producing vegetation may be too far from the water, or, if dry conditions prevailed throughout the summer and early fall, may not exist at all.
The Wildlife Department does seed shorelines at some big reservoirs with millet, scattering seeds from the air, but the success of that effort depends also on the rise and fall of the water throughout the summer and fall. If the lake rises shortly after the millet is sewn, it can flood the area and prevent growth. However, if the lake
level falls too much, the millet may be too far from the water to make it attractive to ducks.
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