From the start, I’ll admit that I’m getting a bit antsy, a dedicated waterfowler who is dreaming of fall duck hunting trips as I tend to the current yard work demands under broiling summertime conditions.
All as I wait – impatiently, I might add – on the waterfowler’s summertime oasis, the annual report from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on the May pond count and spring duck breeding population survey recently conducted on the duck breeding grounds of the northern U.S. and southern Canada.
While it will still be a while before the official numbers get released, I have been able to glean a clue or two from reports coming out from such organizations as Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl.
From what information I’m cautiously gathering, this year’s duck population seems to remain on the higher side of the ledger following the recent run of good weather years, wet breeding grounds and record-size fall flights.
But take such optimism with a grain of salt since a variety of weather conditions last winter and spring have delayed surveys along with bringing overall drier conditions back to a good portion of the fabled prairie pothole nesting grounds known collectively as North America’s Duck Factory.
That much seems apparent after sampling a variety of Flyways.us online dispatches (http://flyways.us/status-of-waterfowl/pilot-reports) filed during the annual breeding survey from duck counting biologists on the ground and pilots up in the air.
What follows is a sampling of what these duck surveyors found in April, May and very early June:
“Back on the prairie we found average moisture conditions in the south, but it quickly got drier as we headed north and west,” wrote veteran duck counter Tony Roberts of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
“The last half of our transects (approximately 18 mile segments of longer, aerial lines) had as little as half the number of ponds and other wetlands observed in 2015, which was in itself an average to below average water year,” added Roberts in his online report.
Like Roberts, other surveyors found variable conditions that trended to be a bit drier than the last couple of years have been.
“We completed the eastern Dakotas survey (Thursday, May 19), a record early finish,” wrote Pam Garrettson with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
“We started early and only had two weather days,” she added. “Conversely, the western Dakotas ground crew, led by Tony Roberts, got snowed on in Montana, and that, plus a few other complications, delayed them a week, so they finished the same day we did.”
What did these crews find in the northern U.S.? A mixed bag of habitat conditions depending upon the exact location.
“We both found, contrary to last year, much wetter conditions in southern South Dakota, then drier conditions as we moved north,” wrote Garrettson in her online report.
Also finding variable conditions was Rod Spangler, a veteran with a number of years participating in the annual pond counts and duck breeding survey.
“We had a few more weather delays than in previous years, but we finally finished our survey at the end of May,” said Spangler.
“Overall, conditions were improved in the Dakotas compared with last year,” he added in an online summary published in early June.
“Late spring moisture helped to partially fill permanent and seasonal wetlands.”
Over in eastern Montana, Spangler reported drier conditions that were similar to what was observed last year.
The exception was conditions near Baker, Montana that ” … had improved somewhat and the areas adjacent to the Rockies saw a decline. In fact, many wetlands here are dry caused by low precipitation over the past few years.”
Spangler indicated that overcrowding is evident here: ” … in these wetlands and we anticipate lower production here. The nesting cover continues to be an issue across the state of Montana, where much of the territory is grazed heavily by cattle.
“Many wetlands are completely void of vegetation along their edges due to trampling and grazing, exacerbating habitat degradation where precipitation is below average.
“More precipitation allows cattle to spread out when watering, which helps prevent damage to fragile wetland edges.”
Overall, Spangler indicated that the survey work done by himself and his crew was a mixed bag of conditions.
“This was an interesting year with the most snow I had ever encountered on a breeding population survey,” indicated Spangler.
“You know what they say, there is rarely ever an ‘average’ year!”
What does all of this mean for the forthcoming pond count and duck breeding survey report?
From where I’m observing, expect to still find a sizable population of ducks getting ready to fly south, albeit a few steps below last year’s record numbers.
Whatever this year’s final and official duck numbers happen to be, expect a full report as soon as the 2016 report is issued along with a peak at what duck hunters might be able to expect in the various flyways across North America.
In the meantime, consider carefully the following words from Tony Roberts:
“Ducks and other waterfowl are somewhat resilient to changes in water abundance on the landscape,” he said in an online written report.
“They are highly mobile which allows them to seek out new breeding ponds on the landscape as precipitation patterns fluctuate,” he continued.
That being said, Roberts does sound a warning or two for duck hunters who thrill to the annual duck migration that comes during the fall flight.
“Many species also are able to breed in a variety of cover types from dense prairie grasses to backyards and agricultural fields, the latter being quite dangerous for most birds,” stated Roberts.
“This resiliency is continuously being tested by human changes to the landscape. Over time one can see the cyclical changes to habitat on the prairies, mostly as a result of changing land conservation policy and fluctuating grain prices,” he added.
“Current acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a large Farm Bill program designed to increase grass cover on the landscape, are at their lowest since the inception of the program in the late 1980s.
“There are numerous other programs designed to conserve habitat, and numerous partner organizations working to protect migratory birds and their habitats.
“What’s needed is continued support from people that care about abundant waterfowl populations for generations to come,” reminds Roberts.
“We hope to be conducting the survey for generations to come as well, and I look forward to counting many more breeding ducks!”
As a passionate and dedicated duck hunter, I’ll add a hearty amen to that.