When it comes to the waterfowl seasons in Alabama, several factors determine whether those duck and goose hunters can deem their efforts worth the trouble. The two most prevalent of the determining factors are: the number of waterfowl that utilize the Mississippi Flyway and how much winter Mother Nature bestows on those states to our north.
According to wildlife experts and avid duck hunters around the nation and Canada, that first prevalent factor looks extremely promising.
“Overall, it looks real good,” said David Hayden, waterfowl expert with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. “We should have an excellent year in terms of numbers of ducks. The last few years have all been pretty good. Again this year, the prediction is about an 11-percent increase over last year.”
Predictions are that the U.S. will have 45.6 million ducks this year, which is 35 percent above the 1955-2010 long-term average.
“Of course, the one that most people are interested in is mallards,” Hayden said. “The prediction is 9.2 million mallards, which is nine percent above last year’s number and 22 percent above the long-term average.”
Northern pintail numbers are higher than they’ve been since 1980 at more than 4 million birds. Northern shoveler numbers are up to 4.6 million. Gadwall numbers are similar to last year at 3.3 million. The American wigeon is down a bit, but still more than 2 million are expected to make the migration from the breeding grounds in Canada and the prairie pothole regions of the U.S. Scaup numbers are up slightly, while redheads increased 27 percent to more than 1.3 million. The number of canvasbacks increased 18 percent over last year, as well.
The number of teal in the survey is absolutely astonishing. Green-winged teal numbers are at 2.9 million, which is 17 percent above last year’s numbers and 47 percent above the long-term average. But the big numbers go to blue-winged teal at 8.9 million, which is 41 percent above last year and 91 percent above the long-term average.
“Teal numbers are real, real strong,” Hayden understated. “There is some speculation that there may have been more birds along the survey routes, but with numbers like that, the number of teal has to be way, way up.”
Hayden said abundant water in the Midwest and Canada had a great deal to do with the increase in duck numbers.
“The water conditions in Canada were much improved this year, so habitat conditions were just about ideal,” he said.
Habitat conditions in Alabama obviously will affect the success of hunters should the birds make it this far south.
“Right now, it’s pretty dry,” Hayden said. “But that can be good. You may get seed production in those areas, and when we get some water to fill it, you’ll have good habitat to attract the waterfowl. It provides cover, as well as seed. But right now, there are a lot of dry areas. The water is pretty much confined to the major drainages.
“If you’ve got water control, where you can adjust the water and can plant some seed crops, the millets are some of the best. The birds also key on sedges, rushes and grasses that have good seed productions. Smart weed is another good plant for waterfowl. It produces a good seed that waterfowl like.”
While conservation organizations like Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl continue to pursue habitat enhancement, several U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that have been utilized to increase wildlife habitat are starting to be phased out.
“Some of the USDA conservation programs are starting to fall off,” Hayden said. “Programs like CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) is starting to roll off now, which may hurt in the long term, but we haven’t seen much effect, yet.”
The other prevalent determining factor is the severity of the winter to the north, and waterfowl tend to migrate just far enough south to deal with the cold and wintry conditions.
I bumped into Chris Jennings of Ducks Unlimited at an outdoor writers’ conference last week, and he echoed Hayden’s good news with a similar caveat.
“Everything is looking really good,” Jennings said. “Everyone is optimistic. The reports coming from Canada concerning the fall flight are looking really good. But, as always, it all depends on the weather. Weather patterns drive the migration, so we all have to wait and see.”
Although Alabama did get some snow last year, it was not a long-term weather pattern that had much impact on the waterfowl migration.
“We had a little bit of good weather last year,” Hayden said. “Some hunters on the Tombigbee and Black Warrior (rivers) said they had a really good year, and others said it was just spotty. In the Tennessee Valley, it was pretty much hit-or-miss. We just really didn’t get the hard freeze we needed up north of us. We had one small push last year, but it didn’t last long and the birds moved back north. It just didn’t last long enough to do us any good.”
The September teal season in Alabama turned out to be a mixed bag for hunters. The hunters to the south around the Mobile-Tensaw Delta had to deal with slim pickings. Those who hunted birds along the waterways to the north had much more action.
“It was pretty slow around Mobile, but up in the Tennessee Valley a lot of people had many teal,” Hayden said. “Several people said it was the best teal season they’ve had in a long time. They, apparently, didn’t get as far south as Mobile, or the ones that were down there kept on moving through. If they get the right weather conditions, they’ll just pick up and go.”
Whether the waterfowl seasons in Alabama reach their potential is beyond any biologist’s or hunter’s control. But the potential is certainly there.
“A lot of people talk about the ‘good ole days,’” Jennings said. “I’ve heard some of our biologists say that even the ‘good ole days’ weren’t this good. They’re just seeing lots of ducks in Canada. Ducks are everywhere. We just need some weather to push them our way.”
Alabama’s duck seasons are set for Nov. 25-26 and Dec. 3 through Jan. 29, 2012. Hunters may take 6 ducks a day and may include no more than 4 mallards (no more than 2 of which may be female), 3 wood ducks, 1 mottled duck, 1 black duck, 2 redheads, 1 pintail, 1 canvasback and 2 scaup. The possession limit is twice the daily bag limit. The remaining goose season is Dec. 3 through Jan. 29, 2012.
Visit www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/season-limits/ for complete waterfowl season information and hunting regulations.