Duck numbers burgeon, but weather, habitat will determine hunter success

JEFFERSON CITY–The number of breeding ducks surpassed all previous records this year, setting the stage for a bountiful harvest. All Missouri hunters need now is the right weather to push ducks into the Show-Me State and keep them here.

This year’s North American breeding-duck population was estimated at 45.6 million. That is 35 percent above the long-term average. This was only the fifth time in the survey’s history that the total duck population exceeded 40 million. In fact, this year’s breeding-duck population was the largest ever recorded since federal officials began counting waterfowl in 1955.

Missouri’s most popular waterfowl species, the mallard, went to the nesting grounds with 9.2 million individual ducks last spring. Nearly as numerous were blue-winged teal, which entered the breeding season with 8.9 million ducks, up 91 percent from the long-term average.

The northern shoveler was the next-most-numerous duck species, with 4.4 million individuals. That was an impressive 98-percent increase from the long-term average. However, redhead ducks take the prize for most-improved numbers this year. Their population estimate of 1.4 million is 106 percent above the long-term average.

Other duck species above long-term averages include:

 Gadwalls, 3.3 million, up 80 percent

 Green-winged teal, 2.9 million, up 47 percent

 Canvasbacks, 700,000, up 21 percent

Numbers of northern pintails – 4.4 million – were up 26 percent from last year, but the progress they have made over the past few years only brings them even with the long-term average.

Only two of the top 10 hunted duck species were below their long-term averages this year. The combined total of 4.3 million lesser and greater scaup was about the same as last year but down 15 percent long-term. And while American wigeon remained fairly numerous at 2.1 million, their numbers were down 20 percent long-term.

Missouri’s waterfowl season begins Oct. 29 in the North Zone, Nov. 5 in the Middle Zone and Nov. 24 in the South zone. Season lengths, bag limits and other details are available in the Waterfowl Hunting Digest 2011-2012, which is available wherever hunting permits are sold or at mdc.mo.gov/node/5646/.

While hunters are sure to be thrilled by the prospect of a possible record fall flight of ducks, old hands know that two other factors – weather and habitat – play critical roles in making a good hunting season.

Weather is an imponderable this early in the season. No one can say when the onset of winter in the upper Midwest and central Canada will send large numbers of ducks south toward Missouri. Just as unpredictable is the onset of wintery conditions that will chase the birds into Arkansas. A long interval between those two events means plenty of opportunity to hunt. A fast transition from autumn to winter shortens hunters’ window of opportunity.

That leaves habitat for hunters to ponder. Migrating ducks need high-energy food to replenish reserves for the next leg of their arduous journeys. They also need water where they can rest. In years when these requirements are scarce, ducks are less inclined to linger in Missouri. This year, highly variable wetland conditions across the Show-Me State creates some uncertainty when predicting the outlook for the upcoming season. Weather patterns, migration timing, and food availability ultimately will shape the 2011-2012 waterfowl season.

“Scouting is going to be very important to hunters’ success this year,” said Resource Scientist Doreen Mengel, with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC). “We had a wet spring followed by hot, dry weather late in the summer and into fall. That made creating the growing conditions that result in good food resources for ducks a special challenge. As a result, the availability of crops and seed-producing native plants is spotty, too. You can’t count on areas that have provided food for ducks in the past to be productive this year.”

Mengel said the distribution of water also will be different than normal this year. Flooding along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers created pools and left standing water in some normally dry areas. The availability of so much additional wetland acreage will give ducks more room to spread out, making them harder to find.

On the other hand, portions of southwest Missouri have been particularly hard-hit by drought. As a result, some low-lying land that usually fills up with autumn rainfall is completely dry this year. Many of these areas have an abundance of food plants, but without standing water, they will not attract ducks as they usually do, unless heavy rains arrive in the coming weeks.

“If you find a spot with both food and water this year, you probably will do well,” said Mengel. “Hunters who rely on past experience to plan their hunts could be in for an unwelcome surprise. I recommend taking your dog out for some conditioning runs in areas you like to hunt, so you can figure out where the water and the food are before the season opens.”

MDC’s managed wetland areas provide the most reliable waterfowl hunting on public land. Most have fair to excellent food to attract migrating ducks this year. These areas are equipped to pump water into wetland pools even in dry years. However, if river levels are too low, it may preclude pumping on some areas.

One notable exception to generally good conditions on MDC wetlands is Bob Brown Conservation Area (CA) in Holt County. It is open to hunting this fall, but prolonged flooding left it with virtually no food or cover.

At the other end of the spectrum is Grand Pass CA, one of the state’s most productive duck-hunting destinations. This 5,000-acre area on the Missouri River in Saline County experienced crop failure in its west-refuge area, and crop yield was reduced in other pools. However, crops in other pools did well, and natural vegetation in Pools 5, 6, 8 and 9 is in good to excellent condition.

Flooding also caused losses of crops and native food plants at other MDC wetland along Missouri’s two big rivers. You can call ahead to learn about conditions on specific areas, using the information on pages 18 and 19 of the Waterfowl Hunting Digest. For twice-weekly reports on conditions at MDC wetland areas during the hunting season, visit http://bit.ly/qQM1YH.

This year’s superabundance of ducks is partly due to a run of good luck with weather the past several years, resulting in abundant moisture across the prairie pothole region of north-central United States and central Canada. However, good luck with the weather would not have produced so many ducks – and millions of nongame birds that nest in the same areas – without sustained habitat restoration efforts by government and private conservation organizations.

MDC, along with Ducks Unlimited and other groups, has invested millions of dollars over the past 50 years to provide places for migrating ducks to rest and feed. MDC currently is restoring some of its oldest managed wetland areas through the Golden Anniversary Wetland Initiative.In addition to providing superb hunting opportunities, wetland conservation in Missouri improves ducks’ physical condition and nesting success.

Similar efforts have helped protect and restore waterfowl nesting habitat. In the past five years alone, MDC has helped enhance and restore nearly a quarter of a million acres of prime breeding habitat in Canada and positively influenced an additional 1.2 million acres.

-Jim Low-