Waterfowl Surveys Look Promising

Waterfowl Surveys Look Promising
(Lynn Burkhead photo)

In Kevin Costner's epic cinematic tale, Field of Dreams, baseball aficionados everywhere learned that "If you build it, they will come."

For waterfowl hunters across most of Canada and the United States, a similar theme rings true: "If you fill it, they will come."

“It” being the permanent and seasonal wetlands that make up the famed Prairie Pothole Region of the northern U.S. and southern Canada, known to many as the "Duck Factory."

And “they” being the clouds of migrating ducks and geese that depend on those wetlands and surrounding upland habitat to complete the yearly cycle of breeding, laying eggs, hatching those eggs and raising young.

According to a Ducks Unlimited (www.ducks.org) news release, most of that yearly waterfowl breeding occurs in an area comprising nearly 300,000 square miles in the northern Great Plains from Iowa to Alberta. So vital is the habitat that it produces up to 70 percent of the North American continent's waterfowl each year.

While a report on the final May pond count numbers and 2014 estimated breeding duck population figures remains days to weeks away, reports from the various flight and ground crews surveying the region this spring are generally giving this year's duck crop a smile and two thumbs up.

“Abundant precipitation last fall, adequate winter snowfall and a good frost seal across much of the 'Duck Factory' resulted in water refilling wetlands this spring,” said Rick Warhurst, senior regional biologist at the Ducks Unlimited Great Plains regional office in Bismarck, North Dakota.

“Wetland conditions are good to very good across a large portion of the Prairie Pothole Region and large numbers of waterfowl have settled in the region this spring,” he added.

Once the 2014 Breeding Population and Habitat Survey began in late April and ran its course into early June, most of the data being collected by surveying crews confirms what Warhurst reported.

That much seems true after examining the blog reports from various biologists and crew members reporting in to the Flyways.us website (www.flyways.us/status-of-waterfowl/pilot-reports) managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USF&WS).

In the eastern Dakotas, conditions were fair but generally not as good as surveyors had hoped for.

"Our overall duck numbers are slightly down from last year with one interesting note that our scaup numbers were higher than they have been in a few years," wrote Kammie Kruse of the USF&WS.

Her eastern Dakotas surveying counterpart, Terry Liddick of the USF&WS, was a little less enthusiastic.

"North Dakota was drier than expected, but had considerably more water than South Dakota," he wrote. "In South Dakota, conditions were fair at best and a lot of it looked poor.

"North Dakota saw some good habitat and a few segments of excellent habitat in the coteau, but much of the state was only fair as well."

Over in the western Dakotas and eastern Montana, things were a bit better according to surveyors.

"Generally, it was cool and overcast and it rained a few days," wrote Pam Garrettson of the USF&WS. "On average, temperatures were about 20 degrees cooler than last year.

"As Rob (Spangler) and I have noted, it was considerably wetter than last year. On our air-ground segments, we counted 76-percent more ponds than last year and more than twice as many ducks."

Across the international border in the Canadian portion of the "Duck Factory," spring nesting conditions were often good in places and very good in some other spots.

In the eastern part of the prairies, Manitoba experienced heavy spring rains that primed seasonal wetlands. With wet conditions, surveyors generally indicated that the ducks appeared to be responding in a big way.

"There is a record amount of water in the Assiniboine River watershed that has greatly increased the potential for flooding," wrote Marc Schuster of the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS).

Schuster noted that the city of Brandon " ... declared a state of emergency and evacuated approximately 1,000 residents in a preventative measure in case the Assiniboine River (breached) the dikes near the river.

"As far as the ground portion of the survey goes, we are seeing full and flooding semi-permanent and permanent wetlands, as well as water in basins that have been dry for a number of years.

"In fact, the southwestern part of Manitoba was the wettest I have seen in over 25 years of participating in the air-ground survey! While this may not be good news for farmers, it bodes well for waterfowl. It can also make for a challenging day navigating the roads (for us). We are also observing record duck numbers on some of the ground segments and all areas surveyed to date are up from last year."

In the northern part of Manitoba, conditions were also very wet according to Walt Rhodes of the USF&WS.

"The habitat appears to be some of the wettest I've seen since I started surveying the region in 2009," he wrote. "Lots of the beaver ponds had water overflowing their dams and many permanent ponds had water to their margins.

"It was encouraging," Rhodes added. "All of the usual species, such as mallards, scaup, buffleheads, and ring-necked ducks, were present, as well as Canada geese, including many molt migrants from the south that were arriving as we were finishing up."

To the west in Saskatchewan, conditions were dry in some areas but amazingly wet in others.

"Overall, duck numbers and water conditions seemed good," wrote Blake Bartzen of the CWS. "Some areas in the very east and west of the province were drier than they have been in recent years, but much of the central grassland area of the province, stretching from south of Moose Jaw up to Saskatoon, was extremely wet.

"Some lifelong farmers working in the area claimed water conditions were the wettest they had seen their entire lives and this was corroborated by the habitat information we have collected for more recent years.

Bartzen noted that like 2013, " ... spring was late in arriving this year, but as the survey progressed we encountered fewer pairs and more lone and flocked drake mallards, indicating the breeding season was progressing and our survey timing was reasonably good."

Fellow Saskatchewan surveyor Phil Thorpe of the USF&WS concurred that breeding conditions were generally good.

"During our banding operations in August, we've seen the results of very good production (lots of ducklings in the traps) during the last several years of wet conditions," he wrote. "I'd expect, given the good to excellent wetland conditions across most of the province, that ducks should have another good production year in 2014.

"Some drying along the Alberta border may impact local waterfowl populations, but overall it appears we should have another good year for duck production from the Saskatchewan prairies."

Over in the province of Alberta, mixed bag conditions were reported by crews in southern and central areas.

"The bright side of the survey is the good to excellent habitat conditions in the area from the Montana border to the area between Edmonton and Red Deer," wrote surveyor Jim Bredy of the USF&WS.

"The turnaround from the dry conditions of two years ago, and even the improvement from last year, seems remarkable.

"Many wetland basins are full and the ducks responded in force. It was one of the highlights of my career to see the Alberta prairies wet again. Barring a cataclysmic event, I expect this area will ‘pop out' a lot of ducks this year."

Bredy said the news wasn't so good from the central portions of Alberta.

"Habitat conditions became drier as we approached Edmonton and continued to deteriorate as we travelled further north," he indicated. "The ducks responded to the lack of water and it was almost as if we crossed a no-fly zone.

Bredy noted that the province's "Peace Country” was all but dry, standing in stark contrast to the good to excellent habitat conditions in the southern part of the province.

Bredy's surveying counterpart Garnet Raven of the CWS was highly enthusiastic by the conditions he observed in the eastern part of Alberta.

"Conditions in stratum 28 and 27 remained nothing short of awesome with record or near record numbers observed on most air-grounds in eastern Alberta," wrote Raven.

Raven also indicated that " ... surprisingly, although water conditions were likewise impressive in central areas around Calgary, duck numbers were closer to average."

Raven agreed with Bredy that conditions weren't' as good in other parts of Alberta.

"We have moved into the parklands over the last few days and have continued to see much improved moisture levels compared to last year," indicated Raven. "However, duck numbers, although improved over last year, have not been as impressive as we witnessed on the prairies."

What does all of this mean?

It means that while official confirmation with the final report on May 2014 pond count numbers and estimated breeding population indexes have yet to be released, the news appears to be generally good in the "Duck Factory."

And with a little luck, hopefully, a good fall flight awaits waterfowl hunters in Canada and the U.S. later this fall.

Because if you fill the Prairie Pothole Region wetlands up north, a big number of ducks will almost always come south.

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