Ducks On The Horizon

As autumn arrives and Louisiana waterfowlers venture afield, both birds and change are in the air. What will the future hold for our state's duck resource? (October 2008)

Is it decline or fall for Louisiana's autumn duck hunting tradition? According to state waterfowl experts, the answer may be: a little bit of both
Photo by Lynn Burkhead.

As a young man living in Baton Rouge, I quickly took note of two defining characteristics of the passage of autumn in the Sportsman's Paradise: LSU Tiger football and duck hunting ruled. Years later, not much has changed.

The arrival of this year's first cold fronts finds the Bayou Bengals still the reigning kings of the college gridiron, and as the first fall winds begin to blow from the north, scores of ducks and geese still pour into the region's wetlands. But while the Tigers' position at or near the top of the college football ranks appears relatively secure for at least a few more years, the same can't be said of Louisiana's autumn duck hunting.

Despite generations of waterfowl hunting tradition and duck-strap success at the bottom end of the Mississippi Flyway, times are changing.

"There is a definite long-term decline in terms of our larger limits and longer seasons," said the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries' North American Waterfowl Management Plan guru Larry Reynolds.

Unfortunately, noted Reynolds, some of the very reasons that Louisiana has long been a bastion for waterfowl and waterfowlers are working against our birds and hunters.

First, Louisiana is surrendering precious waterfowl habitat to saltwater intrusion, which causes marsh losses, and through agricultural changes resulting in substantially fewer acres of rice being farmed at the end of the Mississippi Flyway.

"Our marsh loss is very high," Reynolds said. "We're losing about 22 square miles per year. And we've lost nearly 50 percent of our rice agriculture in the state, especially in our coastal zones. In many cases, that has been replaced by sugar cane conversion, but the rice crop provides migration, wintering, and even nesting habitat, while the sugar cane doesn't."

So what's the bottom line? "There is substantially less food here in southern Louisiana than there was 20 years ago," Reynolds said.

A conversation I had about snow geese a year or two ago with Dr. Bruce Batt, chief biologist for the Memphis-based Ducks Unlimited, underscores this point.

"These birds have traditionally wintered in marshland habitat," Batt said. "But over the last 30 to 40 years, the geese have adapted to agriculture. As a result, they spend more time (in the fall and winter months) on the agricultural habitat than on their native (marsh) habitat."

In other words, the light geese that have historically wintered along the Gulf Coast marshes in Texas and Louisiana have switched to a new winter buffet. And in many cases, so too have the ducks that historically have swarmed into the rice acreage dotting the Sportsman's Paradise.

"Arkansas and Missouri? They are gaining that acreage -- while we're taking a big hit here," Reynolds said. "And it got worse with the hurricanes."

After Hurricane Katrina virtually destroyed the southeastern portion of the state in August 2005 and Rita ravaged the southwestern portion of the state a month later, Terrebonne Parish was the hotspot for Louisiana duck hunters in 2005.

"Katrina missed the parish to the east and Rita missed to the west, so Terrebonne Parish in the middle was virtually covered up with birds. Hunter effort, of course, was down that year because of the hurricane damage and displacement.

In the southeastern coastal country, Katrina's devastation altered the habitat greatly, and thus is being felt still by duck hunters. "Katrina scoured away, relocated, and destroyed areas that are highly organic," Reynolds said. "When those plants die, ponds grow deeper and it is harder for plants to regenerate."

But while southeastern coastal areas have been slow to recover from Katrina's deadly blow, southwestern coastal areas have rebounded much more readily after Rita brought a 12- to 15-foot storm surge of salt water into the marshes of the region.

"We've seen a substantial recovery in the southwestern portion of the state," Reynolds said. "In the southwest, the soil has more minerals and the marsh is more consolidated. And Rita's surge helped get rid of some exotic invasive plants in the area like water hyacinth and salvinia. Plus, the water did some good when it opened up the (consolidated) marsh and created more open ponds."

The result has been very good moist soil seed production in 2006 and 2007, according to Reynolds, with millet, pigweed, smartweed and sprangletop setting the banquet table for migrating ducks.

As a result, duck hunters have been a happy lot in southwestern Louisiana over the last couple of seasons.

"The last couple of years, in southwestern Louisiana, Cameron and Vermilion parishes have seen plenty of duck hunters smiling, with high populations and excellent hunting success," Reynolds said.

In addition to habitat changes in Louisiana, there has been concern over the threat of avian flu showing up in North American flyways.

Louisiana's Avian Flu Early Detection Surveillance System was designed to screen for the disease in wild waterfowl and shorebirds.

"This early detection system is a proactive approach to an unlikely problem," said Robert Helm, the LDWF's waterfowl study leader, in a news release. "The possibility of the disease arriving in Louisiana or North America via migrating birds is unknown, but the risk to bird hunters is expected to be very low. This monitoring system should give the public the confidence of knowing that the bird hunting opportunities in this state are safe."

Still another thing affecting duck hunting success is hunting pressure -- which can be intense in some areas of the Bayou State.

"Where they winter is mostly driven by food, but to some extent, it's also possibly driven by hunting pressure, since there is a lot of hunting pressure in the south," Batt said. "They'll keep moving around until they find a place to settle down and be secure."

Admittedly, hunter effort has been scrambled since 2005's hurricanes devastated homes and businesse

s across the state. "Take for example, Cameron Parish, where I have a lease," Reynolds said. "In 2005, the parish was under martial law -- you could be in after 6 a.m. and had to be out by 6 p.m. The debris down there was unbelievable and the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge was closed in 2005-06 and 2006-07 due to all of the debris."

Some of that debris is still hindering hunter effort today, making it much more difficult for waterfowlers to get in and around some traditional shooting areas. "There has definitely been a big reduction of effort there (along the coast)," Reynolds said. "Things are still not great down there, but the roads have been repaired for the most part and there is some oil, gas, and power to be had in and around most camps."

While there was little good news to come from Katrina and Rita in 2005, Reynolds did admit that the hurricanes did some good in the marshes.

"Ducks are unique in that they prefer the marsh a little broken up and the ponds somewhat dispersed," he said. "Ducks like the marsh in a somewhat degraded state."

Hurricane Rita certainly helped to degrade southwestern marshes, opening up the marsh and creating more dispersed ponds that ducks like.

"It's important to note that in some cases, the impact of the hurricanes is not as negative as it might seem at first," Reynolds aid. "But then again, we can't keep losing 22 square miles per year and not experience some problems."

In addition to changing habitat and hunting pressure, Louisiana duck hunters have to contend with the weather -- or the noticeable lack of it in the fall and winter months.

While scientists continue to debate the scope of global warming and its effects, recent mild early-winter weather farther to the north in the flyways -- combined with little snow cover on the waste grain lying on the ground -- has certainly played a key role in the Mississippi Flyway.

With open water and ample food resources to the north, ducks and geese aren't as ready to move south through the flyways if they don't have to.

In other words, mild weather may be short-stopping birds north of Louisiana.

"There is some evidence of that in the winter surveys that I fly," Reynolds said. "The number of mallards in Louisiana on that survey is a third of the long-term average in our December and January surveys. That means that I can look back over the last 30 years and there are substantially fewer mallards counted in Louisiana than there were 30 years ago. That's more pronounced in November, and less so in December and January."

While Louisiana has been seeing less mallards in recent years -- not just in coastal marsh waters, but also in the state's northern river bottom country -- Reynolds pointed out that preliminary harvest figures from Missouri showed a record duck kill on the Show-Me State's public hunting grounds in 2007-08.

"Yes, I see evidence that there are fewer ducks in Louisiana in recent years," he said. "Last year, our harvest estimate was fairly good in the southwestern portion of the state, but fairly poor in the northeastern and southeastern portions of Louisiana."

It's interesting, remarked Reynolds, to note that conflicting data relating to this subject have some waterfowl biologists scratching their heads about mallard numbers in the Mississippi Flyway.

"A group of scientists at Mississippi State University has been looking at the Lower Mississippi Valley every three to five years," he said. "In 2005-06, what they found was that the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley was wintering substantially fewer mallards than in the past." But a separate study by other waterfowl biologists showed through band recovery data, harvest figures, and Christmas bird count numbers that the expected shift of mallards to the north wasn't necessarily easy to find in the numerical data. To where have those greenheads scattered?

Reynolds isn't completely sure -- but he does know that they aren't coming to Louisiana in the numbers that they used to arrive in.

It's worth noting that while fewer mallards are around, weather (or the lack of it) is also causing an upswing of certain other duck species. "We're seeing more bluewings now," Reynolds said. "In recent Januaries we've had about two times as many bluewings in the state than we've had in the past."

Normally, in Mexico and Central America at the height of winter, more blue-winged teal in the Sportsman's Paradise is both a boon to hunters and an indication that something is up in the southern end of the Mississippi Flyway.

And then there are increasing numbers of whistling ducks. "We're also seeing more whistling ducks, both the fulvous and black-bellied, in the state. In fact, the year before last, for the first time we counted (numerous) whistling ducks (in the winter surveys)," Reynolds said. "In January 2007, we had some 37,000 whistling ducks, and in 2008 we had 52,000. These birds are so rare in our mid-winter survey (over the long term) because they usually winter much farther south.

"So, with fewer mallards, more bluewings and more whistling ducks in Louisiana during our winter survey, that tells me something is happening. And these are fairly long term changes. At least, that's what I'm seeing in the survey."

So with changing habitat, disease concerns, hunting pressure, and weather concerns, the present tense of Louisiana duck hunting is certainly one of change as compared to years gone by.

"Things are even more negative on what is happening in the prairie (nesting) states right now," Reynolds admitted.

For starters, as of press time, the breeding grounds appeared drier than previous years, although the jury was still out on just what effect that will have on fall flight numbers this year.

In addition, the Farm Bill was still being debated in Washington, leaving biologists unsure of the future of crucial conservation programs like the Conservation Reserve Program, something that has clearly been a bona fide boon for ducks on the nesting grounds.

But with rising commodity prices for food and bio-fuel materials, CRP is threatened.

"Waterfowl have no prayer in competing with food (resources)," Reynolds said. "But CRP in 1985 and 1995 gave us some comparative clout because we could offer farmers a viable alternative to take ground out of production and to put it into grassy cover. As a result, ducks and pheasants did very well."

Today, with burgeoning budget numbers on Capitol Hill -- in an election year, no less -- leaving the final version of the Farm Bill in doubt along with the growing cry for cheaper fuel, no one was sure as of press time how nesting ducks will fare in coming years.

So what does all of this for hunters? While Reynolds has hope that t

hings will work out in the long term, he isn't so sure about the short term.

"Right now, I think it's very difficult for people to be optimistic in the next five years," he said. "This is a bad year to ask a duck guy in the south about the future."

Even so, Reynolds is the first to admit that Louisiana is and should remain one of the premiere waterfowl hunting states in the nation for many years to come.

"Absolutely," he said. "The last full year that data is available for, Louisiana was back in first place in terms of ducks harvested and ducks per hunter for the Mississippi Flyway.

"And in our worst season, we were the fourth-highest state in the nation. Last year, we were second in the nation to California, where they have a 107-day duck season and a seven-duck bag limit."

"We may kill the same number of ducks according to (harvest data) and band recovery data, although our hunters may (have) to work a little harder to do it," he added.

In essence, what waterfowl biologists like Reynolds, Helm, Batt, and others are saying is that things aren't like they used to be, not necessarily that the waterfowl sky is falling.

Because even with the challenges being faced today and in the future by duck hunters across Louisiana, there is still ample reason to load up the boat with decoys, grab the shotgun and retriever and head afield for some glorious days of ducks cupping their wings and committing to a waterfowl hunter's spread.

These may not be the good old days of waterfowling in the Sportsman's Paradise as compared to times gone by -- but they're certainly still more than worth the effort of getting out to watch another brilliant sunrise unfold as duck wings whisper overhead.

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