The calendar year begins each Jan. 1, of course, and the U.S. government's fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. But for ducks and other waterfowl, the year begins May 1. That's when the Breeding Population and Habitat Survey begins through a cooperative effort of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service.
This year's effort got a bit of a head start at some points — in late April, thanks to the mild winter that didn't leave many frozen wetlands to hamper the effort. Still, most of the 55,000 miles of transects flown each year from low altitude (150 feet) fixed wing aircraft will be done in May.
The annual survey now covers 2.1 million square miles in the northern U.S. and Canada and includes most of the primary duck nesting areas in North America. It's from this survey that the next waterfowl hunting season parameters will be set, particularly species limits for each flyway.
If you want to see a flyover-by-flyover account of the survey, go to http://flyways.us/
For instance, the North and South Dakota surveys were almost complete by May 7. Here's a sample from Shawn Bayless on the "flyways.us" website: "Overall, wetland habitat conditions are fair-to-good, with a few areas in southern South Dakota and southeast Montana rated as poor."
And there's this from biologist Phil Thorpe in southern Saskatchewan on May 1: We flew our first survey lines today in southern Saskatchewan. There isn’t much temporary water, but the seasonal and semi-permanent wetlands had suitable water levels and ducks were counted in good numbers. All species were present and late migrants (i.e., gadwall, wigeon) were already in pairs and groups of three to four birds. We even saw a few Ruddy ducks, which tend to be late arrivers onto the breeding grounds.
"From our point of view, it was a fantastic first day – the computers worked, winds were calm, lots of ducks to count, and no unexpected weather to contend with. I hope we have a lot more days like this!"
For a duck hunter, it's never too early to start thinking about the coming season. At least from the early flyovers, it appears it will be another good one.