Initial reports were that the breeding grounds weren’t in good shape. That changed quickly, and the numbers of ducks are up significantly. Does this mean a stellar season ahead?Read on to find out.
Many Louisiana waterfowlers had hung up their waders and packed their decoys away long before the end of last year’s hunting season, disgusted with the paltry opportunities to kill ducks.
There were several reasons for the horrible hunting: It was too warm in the northern breeding grounds, there was too much water in Louisiana following a wet fall, much of the vegetation had been killed by salt water pushed into the marshes by two strong storms.
Hunters didn’t really care about those excuses, however. All they knew was that the season made for the second straight year of ho-hum hunting.
The general malaise was heightened by end-of-the season reports that a drought in the northern breeding grounds offered slim hope that the situation would improve.
Hunters resigned themselves to the fact that the 2003-04 season would probably include fewer hunting days and, possibly, fewer ducks in the bag limits.
And then Mother Nature showed pity, sending a rare April blizzard through the northern breeding grounds and dropping 6 to 18 inches of snow.
In an instant, the situation was changed — ducks returned to the breeding grounds and found more than 5.2 million ponds waiting for them to begin their work of reproduction. That was an incredible increase from the 2.7 million ponds in the region during the 2002 breeding season.
“It was shocking,” Delta Wildlife Director Rob Olson said. “Leading up to April, we didn’t have that much snow on the ground, and things were looking rough.
“From that point forward, there was a lot of rain. It was a real lesson in what Mother Nature can do.”
The result is a breeding bird count that is 16 percent higher than that of 2002, which gave hunters a jolt of enthusiasm.
The estimated total population of 36.2 million birds — 5 million more than last year — resulted in hunters’ eyes glistening and their mouths watering.
But was the situation so radically changed by the spring blizzard?
Yes and no, said the Department of Wildlife & Fisheries’ Robert Helm.
“The number of birds in the prairie breeding grounds … is up 16 percent from last year and above the long-term average,” Helm said. “But that doesn’t mean the number of ducks is really higher.”
Confused? Here’s what he means.
Last year, an estimated 31.2 million waterfowl were counted during the annual breeding duck surveys, but there was an inherent flaw in the count — many of the ducks in the breeding population weren’t in areas in which they could effectively be counted.
“When it’s dry, you have a lot of birds that fly over the prairie to the bush or boreal forests (farther north),” Helm explained. “Production’s not very good in those regions, and the birds aren’t easy to count.”
Therefore, many of the ducks available for breeding in 2002 were missed by the counts.
“Is this (increase in the count) super significant? I doubt it,” he said.
He pointed to pintails as an example.
Last year’s count found only 1.79 million breeding pairs of pintails, while this year there were more than 2.5 million counted.
“The number of pintails that were counted this year probably was the number you’ve got,” Olson said. “They just got counted this year.”
Helm and Olson agreed that production probably wasn’t up to par last year, either, since the northern boreal forests simply don’t provide optimum conditions.
“The success rates (of nesting) probably weren’t that high in the forests,” he explained.
So the total number of available breeders probably isn’t as significantly higher as the numbers make it appear.
“It’s hard to imagine the population going up (so drastically). What happened is they could be seen this year,” Helm said.
What has changed is the likely success of nesting.
The April blizzard that dumped so much snow on the prairies set up much of the area for perfect breeding conditions.
“It was a little late for the Dakotas, and we had some birds overfly that area,” he said. “But the timing was perfect for prairie Canada.
“When they got there, they found conditions to their liking, and because of the exceptional conditions, a lot of birds stopped there.”
Ample water during the winter and early spring is so vital because ducks rely on wet conditions in the prairies for successful breeding.
Much of the water forms temporary wetlands — small, shallow areas that might have held water for only a matter of days or weeks before drying up again.
But the importance of these temporary wetlands to breeding success cannot be underestimated.
While the wetlands don’t last long enough to allow ducklings to use them, they do provide food to the hens as they prepare to nest and lay their eggs.
“They produce a tremendous amount of matter (insects and other high-energy invertebrates) for the hens, which allows them to increase their body weights going into breeding,” Helm said. “It takes a tremendous amount of energy to lay a dozen eggs and then sit on them for three weeks.”
The massive amount of these temporary wetlands, which could consist of nothing more than sheets of water in small, scattered depressions, also allowed the duck population to spread out while gorging themselves and fattening up just prior to nesting.
“The more birds spread out, the less competition they have (for food),” Helm explained.
The snow melts and rains also filled an estimated 5.2 million potholes and small ponds in the region. Last year’s pond count was only 2.7 million.
These small water-filled holes are vital to nesting success.
“The number of ponds and potholes in the prairies drive the number of ducks produced,” Olson said. “The pond represents a breeding territory for a pair of ducks.”
Once a pair of ducks stake out their breeding site, they build a nest in the grasses adjacent to the ponds.
“Those little ephemeral ponds are critical to successful production,” he said.
Snows and rains also reinvigorated the major standing waters.
“It recharges a lot of the more permanent waters, and these are where the hens bring their broods after nesting,” Helm said.
Olson added that the waters to which hatchlings are led are important because they offer escape from predation.
“The ducks and their brood will hide in the vegetation on the edges of the ponds,” he said.
Ample escape cover around water is vital to what Louisiana hunters eventually see because nesting success has to be fairly high for a species of ducks to increase in population.
“At least 15 to 20 percent of the nest has to hatch,” he explained.
Put in hard numbers, this means at the minimum two of the roughly dozen eggs each nest contains has to result in ducklings.
That’s not many, especially when it is understood that these two ducks face a very rough-and-tumble start.
“Survival during the first few weeks is tough,” Helm said. “You lose a lot of ducklings in the first 10 days.
“It’s a tough world out there.”
Olson agreed that predation is a major issue, but added that survival can be greatly increased when there is plenty of cover.
“That hen needs to be a needle in a haystack,” he said.
That is increasingly more important, since no more than 10 percent of the prairie region continues to provide suitable grass in which ducks can hide during nesting.
“The rest has been transferred into other uses. Right now, those hens are not a needle in a haystack,” Olson said.
But with the fact that the northern prairies were in prime condition for breeding, Helm said expectations are that success will be high.
“We’re hoping for a higher brood survival. That’s what’s been missing the last two years,” he said.
“Typically when you get the prairies wet, you get strong nesting success among ducks,” he said.
In fact, Olson said, wet prairie conditions allow ducks to try again if one nest is raided and ruined by predators.
“Renesting appears to be real important because of the predation,” he said. “If it’s too dry, they just don’t seem to renest.”
That shouldn’t be a problem this year, he said.
OK, so all of this is interesting information, and definitely sounds promising.
But what does all this mean for Louisiana hunters?
To begin with, let’s look at where the bulk of the brood stock of ducks parked when it returned to the breeding grounds.
Of particular interest is Southern Saskatchewan and the Eastern Dakotas, which attracted about 40 percent of the total number of breeding ducks in the overall population.
Southern Saskatchewan was home to 9.3 million breeding ducks, which reflected an incredible 162-percent increase over 2002 and a 27-percent jump over the long-term average.
The Eastern Dakotas pulled in 5.2 million breeding ducks. This was 21 percent fewer than in 2002, but still was 25 percent higher than the long-term average.
“Those areas, particularly Southern Saskatchewan, are relatively important to Louisiana,” Helm said.
That’s because birds beginning the fall migrations from these points generally take to the Mississippi Flyway, which ends in Louisiana.
And when you look at the individual species that have utilized the Southern Saskatchewan prairies during this summer’s nesting, an even brighter picture is shown.
Every single key species listed in the 2003 breeding duck survey shows significantly higher numbers in Southern Saskatchewan than during the 2002 survey. Some of the increases are in the triple digits.
The population of breeding mallards in the region jumped 74 percent, from 1.2 million to 2.1 million. This also reflects a 1-percent increase compared to the long-term average.
Gadwall numbers rose 199 percent, moving from 360,000 to 1.1 million. That’s a 100-percent jump compared to the long-term average.
Teal also showed a significant increase over 2002, with blue-wings increasing 188 percent and green-wings rising 114 percent. Both numbers reflect above-average populations of 60 percent and 19 percent, respectively.
Northern shovelers, or spoonbills, were present in Southern Saskatchewan in unbelievable numbers compared to 2002. The number of breeding ducks moved from 310,000 to 1.4 million birds for a 364-percent increase. That also reflects 134 percent of the long-term average.
Northern pintails, however, took the prize for the most-dramatic increase. There were 446 percent more pintails in the region than in 2002, with the population jumping from 182,000 to 1 million. The rise was still 20 percent below the long-term average, however.
Wigeon numbers moved from 174,000 to 219,000, or 25 percent in only a year. That number is 50 percent lower than the long-term average.
Canvasbacks also were more prevalent in the region this summer. The population grew by 166 percent, from 73,000 to 195,000. That’s a 6-percent hike compared to the long-term average.
Scaup, or dos gris, saw a 68-percent increase in numbers, moving from 150,000 to 251,000. That number, however, was still down by 41 percent compared to the long-term average.
Redheads, one of the less-common birds in Louisiana during the season, also marked significant increases in Southern Saskatchewan. The species moved from 95,000 birds to 271,000 ducks, or 186 percent. That’s also 44 percent more than the long-term average.
When a comparison of the eight regions within the survey area is performed, one finds that Southern Saskatchewan was the top breeding area for almost every one of those species.
The only exceptions were wigeon, green-winged and blue-winged teal (and Eastern Dakota, which contributes significantly to the Mississippi Flyway was tops for blue-wings) and scaup.
Again, hunters looking at these numbers are left with a warm-and-fuzzy feeling, with images of huge flocks cupping into their decoy spreads during early morning hunts.
Are those images necessarily warranted, though? Will massive numbers of birds make the long trip south to Louisiana’s fields, flooded timber and marshes this fall?
Olson and Helm agreed that it was impossible to predict a massive fall flight, but Olson said there is great potential.
“Given that the area the ducks depend on is real wet, they can expect to see good production,” he said. “If I were in Louisiana, I’d be optimistic. The prairies are wet, and you can’t ask for more than that.”
Helm agreed, to a point, making sure it was understood that there’s really only one concrete conclusion that can be drawn from the prime conditions in the breeding grounds.
“It just means more birds are produced in the northern breeding grounds,” he said.
Helm said he is concerned about heightened expectations in the hunting community.
“We’re setting ourselves up for the perfect storm, so to speak,” Helm said. “Hunters were expecting tighter regulations, and now the expectations are higher again.”
The reason for Helm’s caution is that there are so many factors that drive migration.
“If we have an average winter, or it’s a colder-than-average winter, then, yes, we’ll have a good fall flight,” he said.
But even if the birds move southward in large numbers, conditions in Louisiana have direct impacts on the quality of hunting.
Helm said last fall was a prime example.
“October last year was very cold in the north, and I think there was a good push of birds into the state,” he explained.
But the arriving ducks discovered an absolute mess, as far as habitat was concerned.
“Last October was the wettest October of all time, and that flooded all of coastal Louisiana,” Helm said. “The water was way too deep for dabbling ducks, particularly in Southwest Louisiana.”
The sheer amount of water was compounded by Hurricane Lili and Tropical Storm Isidore, which pushed salt water into duck ponds throughout the coastal zone, killing the grass upon which ducks feed.
“When they got here, Southwest Louisiana in particular couldn’t sustain them,” he said. “I think the birds moved elsewhere.”
Helm said that movement could have been across the Gulf to Central American wintering grounds, or it could have meant birds simply finding more favorable areas in Texas and Mississippi or to the north.
“Ducks will move north again if they need to,” he explained.
Habitat has improved dramatically since last season, with vegetation rebounding and water levels moving back to more-normal levels.
“The water levels have been high, so there’s been a lot of freshwater flow into the area, which I think is good,” Helm said. “The rivers, the Mississippi and Atchafalaya, have really been high since last winter, but they’re finally starting to fall back to normal levels.”
And that means nothing but good things for the marsh.
“Those areas that were impacted by the storms last year have really responded,” he said.
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