Waterfowl Forecast 2005

The report is out, but the news is mixed. The yearly trends in duck breeding populations conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Canadian Wildlife Service came out with the proverbial good news/bad news alternatives. The good news first: According to biologists in the eastern survey area, habitat conditions were good to excellent, thanks to adequate water and relatively mild spring temperatures. The bad news? Population estimates of six waterfowl species were below 2004 levels. American black ducks were down 24 percent, mallards down 36 percent, green-winged teal down 46 percent, ring-necked ducks down 30 percent, goldeneyes down 5 percent and mergansers down 25 percent from 2004 estimates. The numbers on eiders, scoters and long-tailed sea ducks were not released in this report.

On a side note, the report indicates that USFWS took steps toward integrating several previously independent waterfowl surveys, taking into account new analytical methods. For these reasons, population estimates in the report are not directly comparable with estimates in previous reports.

LOOKING WEST

The Eastern survey area is most affected by the Atlantic Flyway, but by looking to other regions you can get a complete picture of the duck numbers. West of us, the news reflects that of the Eastern counts. Several species are down, particularly mallards (down 9 percent), gadwalls (down 16 percent), green-winged teal (down 12 percent), canvasbacks (down 16 percent), redheads (down 2 percent) and scaup (down 11 percent).

Other species of concern, such as the northern pintail, brought very positive news. Pintail numbers show a 17 percent increase. Also improving were wigeon (up 12 percent), blue-winged teal (up 13 percent) and northern shovelers (up 28 percent). The total breeding duck numbers of 31.7 million remained relatively unchanged from last year's estimate of 32.1 million.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

Looking ahead, there is still good news. Abundant water usually means better survival for hens and their broods. It also means better conditions for re-nesting, and it further translates to improved conditions for next year.

All of these numbers don't necessarily mean duck hunters will have a bad season. In fact, after last year's gloomy forecast, while hunters in the rest of the country were left searching for ducks, those in the Atlantic Flyway enjoyed one of the best years in memory. Keep in mind that May pond counts are just estimates that help biologists get a better understanding of the duck population. There are many factors that affect how many ducks you will see during a trip to the blind.

What does all this counting and calculating mean? All indications show that a moderate season with a similar bag limit can be expected. From what several states are proposing, your season's length and the number of ducks in your bag will probably be the same as they were last year. The only real unknown is what the weather will do, which is the biggest factor in predicting season success. --Ruben Perez

Waterfowl Head Count

The total duck estimate this year is close to 30 million, just a hair below last year's number but off significantly from 2003. Mallards are down 9 percent, from 7.4 million to 6.8 million this year, and remain 10 percent below the long-term average of 7.5 million birds. Scaup populations are 11 percent lower than last year. Scaup are at an all-time low after this year's count. There is good news for pintail fans, however. The bird showed a strong improvement of 17 percent from 2004.

Breeding Grounds

Once again, Alaska and Canada's maritime provinces proved to be in good to excellent shape for breeding waterfowl. In the Dakotas and parts of the Canadian prairies, though, ducks returned from their wintering grounds to find dry lakes and potholes. A wet late spring has helped some, because the plentiful water aids the survival of young ducks. Looking at this map it's easy to see why mallard numbers suffered; they breed mostly in the central part of the U.S. and Canada, where habitat was fair to poor overall.

FIVE-YEAR AVERAGES ANNUAL TOTALS SINCE 2000 TOTAL DUCKS* MALLARD* SCAUP* NORTHERN PINTAIL* * In thousands NESTING CONDITIONS EXCELLENT GOOD FAIR POOR