January’s aerial waterfowl survey similar to December numbers

3.07 million ducks is 17 percent higher than recent five-year average

January’s wintry weather has prevented the completion of this month’s aerial waterfowl survey, but preliminary numbers released by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries indicate just about the same number of birds in the state as last month.

The January estimate of 3.07 million ducks is essentially the same as December’s 3.02 million birds, and is 50 percent higher than last January’s estimate of 2.05 million, as well as 17 percent higher than the most recent five-year average of 2.61 million.

(The Coastal Zone survey was flown Jan. 3-5 during freezing conditions, but before the latest Arctic air arrived in the state this week.)

Only the coastal transects and the Catahoula Lake portion of the survey were flown, as well as a portion of the coast-wide goose survey. Numbers for Northwest Louisiana, Northeast Louisiana, scaup surveys and the remainder of the goose and Central Louisiana mid-winter duck survey will be completed by next week.

According to waterfowl study leader Larry Reynolds, large increases were seen in mallards (94,000 to 188,000), green-winged teal (364,000 to 623,000, all in Southwest Louisiana), shovelers (146,000 to 372,000, also all in Southwest Louisiana) and lesser scaup (106,000 to 273,000).

Those increases were countered mostly by a large decline in ring-necked ducks (797,000 to 334,000, mostly in Southeast Louisiana), but also declines in blue-winged teal (122,000 to 58,000) and pintails (483,000 to 325,000).

Here is the rest of Reynolds’ report in its entirety:

Estimates for green-winged teal, pintails, and shovelers are above long-term January averages by 13 percent, 3 percent and 88 percent respectively, while estimates for all other dabblers are below long-term averages.  Despite the nearly 60 percent decline from December, the ring-necked duck estimate remains 77 percent above the long-term January average, while scaup and canvasback estimates exceed long-term averages by 57 percent and 135 percent respectively.

For comparison, the gadwall estimate is 19 percnt below the long-term January average of 824,000 and for coots it is 32 percent below the most recent 10-year average of 1.47 million.  Lastly, the 29,000 mottled duck estimate is the lowest since 1983, when only 25,000 were estimated from this survey.  It is exactly half of the most recent 10-year average of 58,000, which was the mid-winter estimate the January before the bag limit was reduced from three to one mottled duck per day.

Distribution of ducks was more skewed toward Southwest Louisiana, with over 70 percent of the total ducks being counted in that region compared to 58 percent in December.  That was almost entirely due to fewer divers, mostly ring-necked ducks, counted in Southeast Louisiana and far more green-winged teal and shovelers counted in Southwest Louisiana.

The largest concentrations of ducks in Southwest Louisiana were seen in the marsh between Little Pecan Lake and Grand Lake, on a sewage lagoon near Rayne, and on the open waters of White Lake (mostly beyond the 200-meter transect width and not counted, but observed on the lake from two transects).  The only notable concentrations in Southeast Louisiana were in the marshes south and east of Venice, but fewer birds were counted there than in December.  Substantially fewer ring-necked ducks were counted in the Upper Terrebonne marshes than in December as well.

The 39,000 ducks counted at Catahoula Lake was one-third the 111,000 counted in December, and only 16 percent of the 237,000 counted last January.  It is the third-lowest count in the last 10 years and is 55 percent below the most recent 10-year average.  Most striking was the near absence of ring-necked ducks, which have averaged 22,500 at Catahoula Lake over the last 10 January surveys.

The lake was about two-thirds ice covered, and virtually all birds counted were in two large multi-species flocks in the center of the lake.  Water level has remained a few inches above the management target of 29.5 feet MSL for the last month, but remain favorable for dabbling ducks.  As noted in previous reports, due to growing-season flooding events, moist-soil food production was minimal this year, which likely accounts for lower than average duck use despite favorable water levels.

Estimates from this survey may have been influenced by water levels and ice cover across coastal Louisiana during the first week in January.  Water levels were extremely low in most coastal marsh habitats, and many areas with tidal connections, Marsh Island and the marsh south of Caernarvon to cite two of many examples, were almost completely mudflat.

Snow geese in Southwest Louisiana were observed on the mudflat extending 100 or more yards beyond the typical shoreline out into the Gulf of Mexico.  Large acreage of fresh and intermediate marsh was ice covered as was most of the shallow-flooded agricultural habitat.  Besides the large concentrations of ducks noted on the open waters of White Lake, smaller mixed groups of dabbling ducks and scaup were regularly seen a short distance offshore while traveling between transect lines in Southwest Louisiana, and a large number of gadwalls were noted on the open water of Lake Borgne between transect lines 25 and 26 in Southeast Louisiana.  However, the January survey is conducted during the open hunting season, so any suspected use of larger open-water habitats because of low water and ice cannot be separated from similar use to escape hunting pressure.

Habitat conditions were similar to those reported in December, with spotty to poor sub-aquatic vegetation across most southeast and southwest coastal marsh habitats.  Combined with poor production of seed-producing annual vegetation in those habitats due to high water levels in spring and summer, below-average overall conditions have resulted.  Flooding in the agricultural region of Southwest Louisiana remains at least average, with most all managed impoundments flooded and some additional shallow flooding evident in pastures and other agricultural fields despite most being ice-covered during this survey.

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About Patrick Bonin 1315 Articles
Patrick Bonin is the former editor of Louisiana Sportsman magazine and LouisianaSportsman.com.