As the sizzling summer of 2018 unfolds, many hunters are already looking ahead towards chilly autumn mornings in a duck blind.
As a passionate waterfowler who dreams of fall mornings where the whisper of wings tears the still, chilly air over a decoy spread, these are the times that can try my duck hunter’s soul.
After all, triple digit heat and a lengthy list of household chores is hardly the stuff of a mid-summer night’s dream. If you’re a duck hunter, that is.
But there are a few flickers of hope in yet another broiling summertime here in the northern portion of the Lone Star State where I live. For starters, there’s perusing the next issue of Wildfowl magazine when it arrives in my mailbox.
Then there’s the fact that today (Friday, June 29, 2018) marks the start of sales for 2018-19 Federal Duck Stamps online at a variety of license selling retailers, and at U.S. Post Office locations around the country.
And then finally, there’s the forthcoming annual report in early July from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on the May pond count and spring duck breeding population survey that was recently conducted on the duck breeding grounds of the northern U.S. and southern Canada.
While it will still be a week or two before the official numbers are released, there are clues from such places as the Fish and Wildlife Service Website, not to mention Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl.
As has been the case in recent years, it would seem to this observer that the 2018 duck breeding population continues to be on the good side of the ledger thanks to several years of good weather, wet breeding grounds and near record sized fall flights.
That being said, drought is a natural part of the prairie pothole landscape in North America and there are certainly areas that have turned quite dry in recent months. Still, looking at this year’s habitat and breeding survey field reports – and noting that there is currently some good summertime precipitation occurring in some areas – is enough to give me hope concerning forthcoming news from the Duck Factory.
With that idea serving as a backdrop, here’s a glimpse at some of the habitat reports from USF&WS biologists this spring as they worked alongside their Canadian Wildlife Service and state agency partners:
Eastern Montana: Conditions look good for the Big Sky Country where Rob Spangler of the USF&WS notes that wetland habitat looks much improved in eastern Montana as compared to last spring.
"Although to the north in Saskatchewan where Phil (Thorpe) is flying it is very dry, the opposite is the case in Montana," indicated Spangler in his report.
"The driest areas in Montana can be found in the northeastern portion of the state with some fair, but mostly good habitat conditions," he continued. "Although the data has yet to be analyzed, the distribution and abundance of waterfowl is definitely a vast improvement over last year.
"We can expect excellent production out of Montana this year!"
The Dakotas: From the prairie pothole country of North and South Dakota, it's a mixed bag this year for wetland habitat conditions.
For starters, down near the South Dakota/Nebraska border, things are on the drier side of the spectrum.
And that idea also holds true for the wetlands of North Dakota where North Dakota Game and Fish biologists recently completed the Peace Garden State’s 71st spring waterfowl habitat and breeding population survey.
But in between those two locations, conditions are looking pretty good.
"That said, the late season rain last year as well as the above normal snow over the winter, had the country around Parkston and Lake Andes, SD, looking about as good as I have ever seen it and certainly better than it has in the past several years," noted Terry Liddick of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "That trend continued as we moved north through South Dakota until we got to the Aberdeen area and there things began to dry out a bit.
"Waterfowl numbers for all species appear to be up in South Dakota as well as seasonal wetlands," he added.
Alberta: According to Jim Bredy of the USF&WS, the southern part of the province was still locked in the deep freeze back in early April.
"We hoped and prayed for warm temperatures and a quick thaw to rapidly fill the wetland basins," noted the biologist who first flew this survey area back in 1988. "We are all fortunate, because that is exactly what happened!"
The best conditions in the province can be found in the south between Edmonton and the Montana border. (Jim Bredy photo)
The result? Superb habitat conditions from the Montana border north to the Edmonton, Alberta area according to Bredy.
"These are the best overall conditions I can recall since I started flying here. In the past, sometimes the short-grass prairie region in the southeastern part of Alberta looked good, while the aspen parkland habitats to the north were marginal. Other times, the parklands were good and the grasslands were in fair to poor condition. This year, I will report that overall, most of the Southern Alberta portion of the survey will be in good to excellent condition. The exception will be the heavily farmed agricultural areas. The ducks did respond with increased duck numbers seen in many of the areas, especially the areas to the south. The parkland raw count duck numbers were down a bit, partially due to the great conditions further to the south, that most likely “short-stopped” some ducks."
What about the rest of the province?
"As we progressed further to the north and west into the Central Alberta portion of the survey area (strata 75 and 76), the wetland and upland habitat conditions deteriorated, from the better conditions to the south," noted Bredy. "In this area, many of the seasonal wetland basins had depressed water levels, with many of the temporary or “seasonal” basins dry."
Even so, Bredy remains cautiously optimistic.
"We feel the overall good to excellent habitat conditions in the southern portions of the survey area, will help a bit to offset the fair to poor conditions in the Peace Region," he indicated. "We are thus optimistic for good waterfowl production in the southern portion of the survey area between Edmonton and the Montana border (strata 26-29)."
By the way, Bredy’s hard work in this year's survey is his last as a Fish and Wildlife Service employee with his retirement looming at the end of June.
"There is a beginning and an end to just about everything," noted Bredy. "It has been a great ride, but it is time to go. After flying these surveys for portions of four decades, I am thus signing off. I wish you all fun and safe journeys afield. Take care ... until we meet again!"
Saskatchewan "Another survey safely and successfully completed," reported Phil Thorpe of the USF&WS. "Despite the low precipitation across the province over the previous 10 months, large parts of the survey area remain in good shape for waterfowl nesting and brood rearing. This is in large part because of the long-term wet cycle the province has been in for the last 10 years or so. We observed wetlands flooded out of their margins, flooded farms, and ongoing drainage from smaller water bodies into larger ones, thus flooding the larger ones.”
Later in the survey effort, Walt Rhodes of the USF&WS noted that in the northern part of the province and in portions of nearby Manitoba, unseasonably warm weather was beginning to take its toll.
"I’d expect that even with the below average precipitation, many areas in the province, like the Missouri Coteau, the parklands, and the southwestern and northwestern grasslands will still have enough good quality habitat to provide good recruitment from the southern Saskatchewan survey area,” he said. “However, any rain to help replenish low water levels in wetlands and help stimulate growth of cover for nesting waterfowl would certainly help. Drought is part of the prairie life-cycle and is needed for wetland productivity, we can only hope that if the drought has arrived, it doesn’t last as long as the wet cycle lasted!"
Manitoba: According to Rhodes, Manitoba’s habitat looked good once again during this year's spring survey.
"Wetlands were adequately charged and breeding pairs were sprinkled across the landscape," he noted. "There was no ice present, including on even the largest water bodies that we cross. The last two years have seen some welcome surface water compared to previous years."
Saskatchewan and Manitoba should have a good waterfowl production year. (Sarah Yates photo)
As mentioned above, Rhodes noted that unseasonably hot late spring weather was having a negative impact as his crew worked northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba: "Besides the discomfort in the cockpit what this means is the boreal forest and its waterfowl habitat is drying out very quickly and making it ripe for forest fires."
What was Rhodes conclusion? "All in all, it was a smooth 2018 survey over good habitat," he reported. "We were greeted with some forest fires early on that required some pre-planning each morning but overall the weather cooperated, with only one weather day and two mandatory crew rest days. The ice melted quickly and spring progressed as normal, with maybe only very slightly behind (normal weather) in Manitoba. It should be a good waterfowl production year across northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba."
Look for a full report on the 2018 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey when it is released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service later this summer.