July 24, 2019
By Lynn Burkhead
As NFL training camps open and college football fans anticipate the Labor Day weekend openers in a few weeks, the season of late-summer forecasts is now upon us.
Turn on your TV set to something other than Outdoor Channel, Sportsman Channel or MOTV programming right now, and many of the sports talk shows are filled with ideas about the upcoming pigskin campaigns of your favorite – and most despised – football teams. Newsstand shelves are filled with football prediction magazines.
If football previews are one certainty of late summer, so are hunting forecasts, including duck-hunting outlooks in the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific flyways.
Like football fans wondering if Alabama can beat Clemson or if any team can dethrone the Tom Brady-led New England Patriots, waterfowl hunters want to know what’s expected over their duck blinds this autumn and early winter.
Well, a few weeks before the anticipated release of the 2019 version of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) annual report on waterfowl breeding numbers, the guess here is a mixed bag, of sorts.
There’s some good and not-so-good news for the upcoming season.
In some places — eastern South Dakota and eastern portions of Canada, for instance — there is an abundance of water of which the ducks are likely to take advantage.
And in other places — southern Saskatchewan, for example — it’s just the opposite as surveying biologists wipe away layers of dust from the windshields of their airplanes, helicopters and pick-up trucks.
Overall, the guess here is that the Fed’s forthcoming release of 2019 duck breeding numbers will continue to fall away from the record-high figures found in recent years, but still be reasonably good and lead to another fall of solid numbers of ducks winging their way south through the continent’s four flyways.
The reason for that waterfowl prognostication comes after taking a look at the blogs written in recent weeks by 16 different crews who surveyed duck nesting grounds in April, May, and early June.
That hard work will fuel the 2019 version of the "Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey Reports,” which will be issued later this summer. That report comes thanks to a joint effort started in 1955 and conducted each spring and early summer by the USFWS and the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS).
With the traditional duck factory survey area being a roughly 1.3-million-square-mile area of Alaska, Canada and the northern U.S.; these prairie and boreal forest areas produce the lion’s share of North America’s wild ducks that filter their way southward across the continent through the Mississippi, Central and Pacific flyways each fall.
Further east and covering just less than a million acres (0.7 million acres), a similar survey takes place each spring in the breeding grounds of eastern Canada and the northeastern U.S. For eastern seaboard hunters, these breeding grounds primarily provide ducks that will wing their way south through the Atlantic Flyway.
What did waterfowl biologists find this year in their survey work?
In a good number of instances, that means a fair amount of variety in the 2019 pond count and breeding conditions survey, particularly in the fabled “duck factory” region — a term coined many years ago by Ducks Unlimited in the prairie pothole region of southern Canada and the northern U.S.
Here are some of the comments biologists and pilots logged as they surveyed North America’s vast duck country:
USFWS’ Terry Liddick (Eastern South Dakota): “We wrapped up South Dakota a couple days ago and we have never seen that much water in the state, pretty much everywhere in the state east of the Missouri River the wetlands are full,” wrote the pilot/biologist. “You are pretty happy if you are a duck, maybe not so much if you are a farmer.”
“This is the first time in the nine years I have been flying the Eastern Dakota’s crew area that I will call all of the habitat excellent,” he added. “It is a far cry from three years ago when most of the state was rated fair to poor. The ducks have responded well, too. Most if not all species were up across the crew area, particularly pintails and shovelers, but all species seemed to have an uptick. That is not unexpected given the conditions.”
USFWS’ Philip Thorpe (Southern Saskatchewan): “Overall conditions across the survey area were extremely dry,” wrote Thorpe in his final post of the surveying season. “Permanent waterbodies were pretty much all that remained on the landscape, no ephemeral or temporary ponds [i.e., sheetwater], no seasonal ponds and very few semi-permanent wetlands.
“Pintails prefer the shallow sheetwater and seasonal ponds in the grasslands. When they arrive in April and that sight picture isn’t presented to them, they pack up and leave for the northern regions of North America, the boreal forest and Alaska. I’d expect those survey areas to have higher pintail counts this year, since ours is likely down from previous years.”
USFWS’ Rob Spangler (Central Alberta): “Overall habitat conditions were fair to good over much of the survey area,” wrote Spangler. “In central portions of the province, where agriculture lands dominated the landscape, habitat was in fair [shape] with some poor conditions.
“As we moved north out the Edmonton area towards Slave Lake and Grand Prairie, habitat conditions improved somewhat – especially in the parkland/boreal forest areas, such as near Lac La Bich habitat, where habitat was good. Again, the more heavily cultivated habitats were relatively dry with little habitat or nesting cover.
Although the official calculations have yet to be completed, it appears that numbers of waterfowl are down from last year, when conditions were really good. Still, conditions were generally not all that bad, and I think we can look forward to mostly fair conditions and production out of Alberta.
USFWS’ John Rayfield (Montana/Western Dakotas): "Water conditions through the western Dakotas and into southeastern Montana look great,” noted the retired USFWS pilot-biologist. “The majority of the ponds and wetlands we are seeing are 80 to 95 percent full. A small area in northeastern Montana was around 60 to 70 percent on the ponds.”
USFWS’ Garrett Wilkerson (Eastern Ontario/Western Quebec): "The extreme thirst for knowledge exuded by fellow waterfowl enthusiasts never ceases to amaze me, and I think it is part of what fuels us as scientists to continue to work tirelessly to understand more about the biology and ecology of each species so that we can make the best conservation decisions,” he wrote. “This survey provides one piece of the big puzzle. Our crew area is just a portion of that one piece. So, the answer to ‘how many’ will have to wait a few months. Sorry!
“With that being said, it [anecdotally, as Stephen Chandler also cautions in his latest blog] appears quite a bit wetter in the strata we have completed, and it seems that I have observed similar or slightly higher numbers of some species, including ring-necked ducks and American black ducks. Again, I have not had a chance to compare numbers to last year, but I get the sense I have observed and counted more. With the wetter landscape and many rivers well outside of their banks, I have observed fewer ducks in drainage ditches among agricultural lands [marginal habitat], as they have moved to higher-quality habitats such as the inundated floodplains and beaver ponds. If the water remains on the landscape, available breeding habitat will remain abundant, and waterfowl production will hopefully reflect the good habitat conditions.”
USFWS’ Walt Rhodes (Northern Saskatchewan/Northern Manitoba): "It’s too early to tell much about habitat conditions [as the report was written]. Weather data indicates that the crew area seemed to have a drier-than-normal winter in terms of precipitation but April was slightly above average. Winter temperatures were near normal with the exception of February, which was brutally cold.”
USFWS’ Sarah Yates (Southern Manitoba): "This is definitely a dry year, and while I said it last year, 2019 is now the driest I have seen it since I started flying the crew area, about 7 years ago [not very long]. When I started flying the survey we were in a wet cycle and ponds and rivers were flooding. Now I get to experience a dry cycle. I will say that most everyone around here is hoping for some late spring/early summer rains. I’m pretty sure the ducks could use it!”
USFWS’ Dr. Joe Sands (Southern Alberta): "The Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey [WBPHS] is a marathon, not a sprint,” wrote Sands early on in his crew’s survey work. “We have to consider the entire landscape, and each strata we are counting when evaluating conditions each spring. This year in Alberta, the prairies seemed relatively dry, at least relative to last year.
“We knew we would find water and birds somewhere, and we were right. We moved north out of prairie habitats over the last week, and are now finding a lot of ducks and water in the parklands of Stratum 26. There appears to be notable increases in several species including canvasbacks and redheads, as well as green-winged teal. In general, our pond counts have increased as well. It looks like some [of] these parkland habitats will be critical to a large number of ducks in Alberta this year. As we move farther north the bigger picture will become clearer.”
So, what does all this biologist-speak mean for the North American duck hunter prepping for opening day?
Well, all in all, a careful consideration of these biologist blog reports seems to indicate somewhat drier conditions in the duck factory of south-central Canada, along with wetter conditions prevailing to the east. Coupled with fair-to-good conditions in Alberta, portions of Montana, and the Dakotas, the result is a mixed bag of sorts.
With that in mind, it seems probable that overall duck breeding numbers will likely be reported as down in a few weeks when the 2019 breeding estimate is released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Still, a forecast of the forthcoming forecast still sees reason for some solid optimism among duck hunters. That’s because there will still be plenty of ducks ready to head south this fall, leading to some good hunting if weather and local conditions permit.
So, while this “forecast about the upcoming forecast” story might not help you figure out who will win the college football championship or the Super Bowl, it should bring some excitement for duck hunters and their retrievers gearing up across North America.
Because, with any luck, look for another season of mallards, teal, wigeon, gadwalls, pintails and their winged cousins filling the skies, causing duck hunters to face plenty of sleepless nights this fall and winter in anticipation of the season.
And that’s something to look forward to, no matter what happens with your favorite football team.