With waterfowl seasons set to get under way in earnest, here's what you can expect to encounter when you hit the fields and waterways across our region.
Photo by Gary Clancy
This fall, as the days grow shorter and the natural cycles slide into full swing, millions of ducks and geese will take wing and thrill hunters throughout the Central Flyway once again. Bird numbers will be good, and good hunting will follow. But duck numbers probably aren't quite as good as last year.
Ducks are expected to be down, while many goose populations will remain, in some instances, too good.
Biologists have been looking at the age structures of ducks in the Central Flyway, and what those numbers tell U.S. Fish and Wildlife Biologist and Central Flyway Representative Dave Sharp, is that ducks are in a downward spiral right now.
"One of the best pieces of data is where we look at age ratios of young from the harvest last year," said Sharp. "They were below average. This year I would expect lower duck populations across the board, including the mallard. I am expecting harvest to be down."
All of that has to be said with the understanding that some conditions could change. A lot of it depends on what the birds do under fall weather conditions: They can fly right through an entire range of states if a severe arctic blast sweeps down, or they can lounge around under sunny skies and warm temperatures for weeks.
The number of waterfowl in a particular area will fluctuate quite a bit in response to weather. The federal Conservation Reserve Program has been a big help in stemming the long-term downward slide of bird numbers, but that program is always in danger of being reduced or gutted, especially when you consider the huge budget deficits now running in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually.
"The CRP is really in good shape on the U.S. side of things," said Sharp. "But it is up for review. The habitat conditions in general in the Dakotas and eastern Montana are excellent. We just don't have the wetlands to go with it this year. Canada is a different story. They don't have a CRP program. Farming has had an impact up in that end of the world."
For geese, the situation is different, so far. They nest much farther north in Canada, where farming hasn't taken hold in a big way, so their nesting grounds are still intact. In fact, snow goose numbers have exploded, such that they actually damage their nesting grounds by feeding too heavily. There have even been controversial spring seasons with high bag limits to reduce the snow goose population.
Here's what state waterfowl biologists expect for the coming waterfowl seasons in the Great Plains.
North Dakota also is lighter on local duck populations than has been the case the past few years. But by October, the situation turns hectic, no matter what. Local birds mix in with ducks coming down from Canada, and that will likely result in the usual good duck hunting this fall.
"There is a lot of movement by birds during fall," said Mike Szymanski, waterfowl biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. "It is often called the 'fall shuffle,' where you get hatch-year birds flying north. They are going all over the place. When you shoot a duck, you never know where it came from. They do that to time food resources."
In fact, some of the North Dakota ducks even fly north for a while during fall. Confusing behavior, perhaps -- but it serves a purpose that has been ingrained into the instinctual centers of duck brains over the millennia.
"A lot of times after the adults are done breeding, they fly north to do their wing and body feather molt," said Szymanski. "They need to grow new feathers, because their old ones are worn out. They dump them all at the same time. They have traditional bodies of water where they do that -- large, shallow bodies of water that are safe for them to be flightless. A lot of those waters are in Canada."
This northward molting flight occurs during late summer. Then, by October, the ducks are headed back south into North Dakota. "It is weird, because the hatch-year birds that were raised that year go north too," said Szymanski.
These young ducks don't lose their feathers like the mature ducks do. But apparently they're safer and more comfortable staying with the flock. They also learn the places to which they'll need to go next year when their molting time comes.
"They might pick up a flock of birds that are flying north," said Szymanski. "They might jump on with a group and go into Saskatchewan or Manitoba. You can see it on our band returns. They were banded (in North Dakota) when they couldn't even fly, and every now and again you will get returns in Saskatchewan and Manitoba."
It's during the early season in October that the vast majority of North Dakota's duck hunting takes place. It gets too cold later on, and the birds leave. "October is pretty much all of our season" said Szymanski. "A lot of times we are frozen out by Halloween."
Much of the hunting still occurs on the sloughs that are so common in eastern North Dakota. This makes for a traditional type of hunt, and is of excellent quality. "Mallards are probably the most sought-after duck in North Dakota," said Szymanski, "but people shoot a lot of gadwalls and a few teal."
Hunter numbers in North Dakota remain strong, buoyed by the good bird populations of the past decade. Last year, about 24,000 non-residents and 30,000 resident hunters were in the field for waterfowl.
"Hunting is still good," said Szymanski. "Things are winding down, but hunters are still able to find birds. It will probably continue to get tougher as we slide into a drought. And we may be in a dry cycle now."
Both Dakotas frequently have fair to excellent local duck populations to hunt. This year it is leaning more toward the "fair" in South Dakota. The northeastern part of the state has the most prairie potholes, and the most nesting ducks. Thus, that area also has the most local ducks for hunting.
The western areas are spotty, but very good in isolated locales. Stock dams provide good places for ducks to live during summer. And with a lower number of predators such as fox and skunks, the survival rate is often better.
"October is early in the season, and you will be hunting a fair number of locals," said Spencer Vaa, waterfowl biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and
Unfortunately, the most common duck to live in the Dakotas during summer is often gone by hunting season. Blue-winged teal abound in the sloughs and small waters that they prefer for summer nesting, but they're driven south early by the first hints of cool weather. And the teal are usually in areas farther south come hunting season.
"When you are talking local, blue-winged teal raised in the Dakotas are already gone," said Vaa. "Blue-winged teal are the No. 1 duck raised in the Dakotas. Most are gone by the early part of the season. Many leave in September. We have an earlier framework just for that, for several years, and that has helped for both blue-winged teal and wood ducks, which are early migrants."
Mallards are a different story. Some live here; others will be flying in from farther north. It's the most popular and most hunted duck in the Central Flyway. And their popularity is high in South Dakota.
Only a few decades ago, South Dakota was devoid of geese during summer, but SDDGFP biologists intervened and undertook to stock the birds, which have done very well across the state. They'll provide good local hunting.
"The geese are doing fine," said Vaa. "With giant Canada geese, I have been seeing quite a few. They are fairly stable, though when you lose their water in certain areas they go somewhere else or don't nest. But we have plenty of giant Canada geese in the state. They like dugouts; they like sloughs, and along lakeshores and along rivers. I've seen a lot of them along the Big Slough River."
The migrant geese come in from Canada a bit later. The hunting remains good throughout the season. Most of the goose hunting takes place along the Missouri River; birds rest on the river and then fly to neighboring cornfields to feed. There is both private and public hunting available. Owing to the good nesting areas in Canada, the goose populations are once again expected to be quite high along the Missouri River in South Dakota.
Many of the ducks in Nebraska during the hunting season are migrants from the north. But there is a good local population in one of the finest natural habitats remaining in North America -- the Nebraska Sandhills. Almost all of the hunting there is on private land.
The approximately 19,000 square miles of grasslands are sparsely populated with humans. The main species are blue-winged teal, gadwalls and mallards. Because a significant percentage of the grasslands is still intact, the ecosystem can withstand drought well. Underground water lies just under the land's surface.
"This year it is looking pretty decent," said Mark Vrtiska, waterfowl program manager with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. "If it is nice, you can get a pretty decent shoot of bluewings early on, and, surprisingly, a few wood ducks and gadwalls that are raised locally. The smaller ducks are there, and a few locally raised mallards, and a few pintails."
There are two things that can make Sandhills hunting fairly challenging: Most of the hunting is on private property, and permission must be obtained to hunt it. And the birds can scatter about over a wide area if they are pushed.
"The one thing about it is that even though there can be a number of ducks up there, it can be tough to find them at times," said Vrtiska. "What they can do is fly over a hill and sit there. They disappear on you."
With few hunters in the Sandhills, the ducks are not likely to be pushed back your way, either. "Even though there are a bunch of birds, there aren't a lot of hunters," said Vrtiska. "It has happened to me more than once: You see a bunch of ducks on a lake; you start shooting -- and they end up at the other end of the lake. And you are done. Or they fly over the hill -- and you are done. It is kind of one of those things that every now and again you wish there was someone else out there."
Asking hunting permission can also be a challenge. "It is tough," said Vrtiska. "It's not like there is a house nearby. You see some place you want to go, and you have to track down the landowner. And he can live miles away from there. And it's tough scouting, because there isn't a road system through there.
One of the few public hunting areas can be found at Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. There are lakes on as well as near the refuge. And this area also has some of the prettiest scenery in the northern Plains near the Niobrara River. Other public hunting areas include the Rainwater Basin area in south-central Nebraska, and at Lewis and Clark Lake on the South Dakota border.
Typically, when the season opens in early October, there is good weather and good hunting for teal. "Then, if it is a typical fall, in late October you are looking at an influx of widgeon and gadwall, and a few mallards," said Vrtiska. "Then in November we get a big push of cold weather and we get mallards. With a big cold front, the lakes freeze up. They aren't very deep, for the most part. Then the ducks seek reservoirs and rivers, and then they are out. And by the time you can get past Nov. 15, you are doing well in a typical year. If you get past Thanksgiving, it is really gravy."
The bulk of the ducks that Kansans hunt this season will have flown in from the north, where they nested and raised their young over the summer. Because of that, the autumn weather is of prime importance. If the birds move in gradually and the weather is enjoyable to them, the hunting should be quite good and last a long time. If, on the other hand, the cold fronts hit hard, the ducks are apt to exit early for the sunnier climes to the south.
"We don't produce all that many ducks in Kansas," said Helen Hands, wildlife biologist at Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area. "And even if we have excellent habitat conditions, we can't control whether they stop or not. We have had several years when we had good habitat conditions, they had a good hatch up north -- and they didn't stop. When there is a big cold spell, they can pass us by or go around us."
Some of the earlier migrants that have already left the north are in Kansas in full force by October. There will be some blue-winged teal hunting during October. And there will likely be lots of pintails, widgeon, green-winged teal, shovelers and gadwalls. Of course, like elsewhere, mallards are the main species. But the time isn't yet perfect for the mallards; it's got to get colder.
"Mallards come in a little later," said Hands. "October is early season for the species other than mallards."
Hands works at one of the most famous waterfowl spots on the Plains. But other wetlands in Kansas are very good for waterfowling as well.
Quivira NWR is a salt marsh whose salinity is sometimes higher than seawater. As a result, it stays free of ice much longer than do freshwater lakes and marshes.
"They are in a totally different soil and they have a lot more irrigation surrounding them," said Hands, "so they have better food during wi
nter. They have a lot of irrigated corn there, and it holds the birds later. Salt is just part of the natural geology there. They mine salt in the county east of the refuge, and salt formations underlay the marsh."
The goose hunting in Quivira has been outstanding recently. "Quivira has become a spectacular goose area in the last couple of years," said Hands. "They have had goose estimates of 800,000 the last couple of years. But most of the hunting is on the private areas."
Authorities will bring hunting to an abrupt halt if whooping cranes fly into Quivira. It's a safety precaution to prevent the endangered birds from being harmed in hunting accidents.
More good hunting is also expected at Kirwin NWR. This refuge in north-central Kansas has good goose hunting. Another hotspot is Glen Elder Reservoir. In the east there is Marais des Cygnes --"Marsh of the Swans" -- and Neosho Wildlife Area in southeast Kansas.
So it looks as if the duck and goose hunting once again is off to a good start for another year. Maybe we'll see you on the marsh!