June 10, 2022
Duck hunters, rejoice, there’s some good news coming from the breeding grounds.
To say that bad news has become all too common in recent months would be an understatement, from a worldwide pandemic to supply line shortages to rising inflation to political upheaval and much more. Gasoline prices have risen to unprecedented levels that have everyone feeling pain at the pump.
Duck hunters haven’t been immune from the world’s bad news cycles. Since last year, after a long run of good springtime breeding news out of the Prairie Pothole breeding grounds of southern Canada and the northern U.S., hunters have seen too many negative headlines.
Those headlines came about because of a severe drought on the prairie nesting grounds, the fabled Duck Factory, a drought the likes of which had not been seen in a generation or two. And with the turned-to-dust wetland conditions of 2021, the duck breeding population took a significant step backwards, even if the lack of survey work (thanks to COVID-19 protocols and cancellations) and scientific data couldn’t prove it.
Except, that is, in North Dakota, where the Peace Garden State found a way to keep alive its 74th annual spring breeding duck survey in May 2021, important survey work that gave the waterfowling world a real-time glimpse into the bad news that duck production and wetland numbers were down significantly and the fall flight would eventually show it.
In short, it did, as a recent Ducks Unlimited report looking back on the 2021-22 waterfowling seasons showed.
"Overall, managers expected a below average fall flight composed heavily of adult birds, with greatest effects to be felt in the Central and Mississippi Flyways. Reports from across the country of low juvenile harvest and overall low duck abundance were consistent with these expectations," stated the DU report, confirming what many, if not most, hunters saw to be true last fall and winter.
For some, last fall brought some of the worst waterfowl hunting campaigns ever experienced, particularly in parts of the southern U.S. where record December warmth and limited snow cover up north failed to push what ducks were out there southward through the flyways. Up north, for some hunters—enjoying abundant flocks decoying in front of their blinds all the way to season’s end—it was the best season in memory. And for most everyone else, it was somewhere in between, but not nearly as good as anticipated.
Reason to Smile
Which brings us to the current year of 2022 and the hope for some good news, finally, both for the world in general, and for duck hunters specifically. That shot in the arm of good news was delivered through the work of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, which just completed its 75th annual spring breeding duck survey.
Cutting to the chase, NDGF migratory bird supervisor Mike Szymanski, who delivered a lot of tough news to waterfowlers last year, had reason to smile after the May 2022 survey was completed, since it found that the breeding index in the Peace Garden State was nearly 3.4 million birds this spring, up 16 percent from a year ago, the 23rd highest such figure in survey history, and standing a full 38 percent above the 1948-2021 long-term average.
With a few exceptions, the news was also much improved for most individual duck species in North Dakota. Mallards were up 58 percent from last spring, showing the 25th highest spring count on record in the state. Ruddy duck breeding numbers (a curious duck species that occasionally shows up in hunter’s bag limits) have increased by 157 percent from 2021 to 2022, while shovelers are up 126 percent, pintails are up 108 percent, canvasbacks are up 69 percent, and scaup (bluebills) are up 4 percent.
There were several decreases noted, however, including some for species many duck hunters rely on to help fill out bag limits. Those North Dakota numbers that turned downward this spring include green-winged teal (down 42 percent from last spring’s breeding number), gadwall (down 36 percent), wigeon (down 10 percent), and blue-winged teal (down 4 percent).
So it’s a mixed bag of breeding duck news from North Dakota this year, some good, some not so good, but generally a good bit better than we all saw a year ago. And it should be taken with a grain of salt, since there could be extenuating circumstances in play that recent surveys by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service (the traditional May breeding population surveys and pond counts) and North Dakota’s own mid-summer duck brood survey will tell the full story on.
But right now, thanks to late winter snows (including two historic blizzards in April that buried the state with record snowfall measured in feet, not inches) and spring rainstorms that have left much of North Dakota awash in moisture—some spots are heavily flooding this year after being veritable dust bowls 12 months ago—the duck news looks much more favorable this spring as compared to 2021.
"It’s important to note that some of our statewide increases in species counts might not reflect broader-scale population trends, especially for pintails," said Szymanski in an NDGF news release. "The abnormally wet conditions in the state are likely holding a higher percentage of breeding pintails than normal. We’re coming off a very dry year that resulted in low reproduction, range-wide, for many species."
Speaking about how wet the prairie ground is in North Dakota this spring—and in many other areas just north of the state—Szymanski noted that the number of temporary and seasonal wetlands was substantially higher than last year. In fact, the news release indicated that the Peace Garden State’s spring water index is up a whopping 616 percent from a year ago, a figure that is said to be "…the largest single-year increase on record for the survey."
Remember that grain of salt? Keep it handy here since the NDGF news release clarified that the North Dakota water index is "…based on basins with water and does not necessarily represent the amount of water contained in wetlands or the type of wetlands represented. Consistent precipitation and cool weather leading up to the survey left a lot of water on the landscape in ditches and intermittent streams."
So, with lots of water being good and the right kind of water being better for ducks, again, the early news from North Dakota looks good. But don’t forget that recent and future survey work this summer could alter the picture a little bit in the weeks ahead.
"Besides being our 75th consecutive survey year, this was an interesting survey, as we’ve gone back and forth between wet and dry conditions over the past couple of years," stated Szymanski. "We actually had our second highest wetland index in the state, which is largely made up of water that’ll dry up fairly quickly. But ponds that are important for brood-rearing habitat have rebounded nicely as well."
What will all of this mean for duck hunters this fall, in North Dakota and beyond?
The answer to that question remains to be seen, but so far, so good.
"A lot can change between May and hunting season, so we'll get a few more looks from our July brood index and our September wetland count," said Szymanski. "But duck production should be a little bit better this year than it was last year due to a stronger breeding effort.
"However, we continue to lose grass in upland nesting sites that will diminish reproductive potential for ducks in the state. Despite expected low Canada goose production this year due to the harsh conditions in April, we did have a record number of geese on breeding territories, so hunting opportunities for those birds should be pretty good again this year."
All meaning that while this year’s early duck production news out of North Dakota might not be the best ever seen, it’s certainly better than a year ago. And that should mean—could mean—more smiles for duck hunters later on in 2022.
We can only cross our fingers, hope and pray for more good news this summer, and make sure the blind is spruced up, the leak in the waders is repaired, the retriever has been tuned up, and we can find some shotshells before the law comes off another year of waterfowling across North America.