Waterfowl Forecast 2005

Duck numbers are down, but only slightly, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Canadian Wildlife services' Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey. An estimated 31,735,000 birds will be heading south this fall, compared to 32,164,000 last season, a decline of about 1 percent. That should mean similar hunting opportunities for Southern duck hunters in the Atlantic, Mississippi and Central flyways. Of course, as waterfowlers learned two years ago, population estimates hardly matter if cold weather doesn't jump-start the birds on their migration.

"Weather is always the most critical factor for hunting success,"says Ducks Unlimited regional biologist Mike Checkett. "Duck populations certainly matter to overall hunting success, but every state depends on birds being pushed down from the north by weather."

Individual species showed wide variations in population changes, with northern shovelers and pintails experiencing the greatest gain. There are 17 percent more pintails this season than last, a jump of nearly 4 million birds. Much of the increase can be attributed to good nesting conditions in southern Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta, where pintail numbers increased 81, 71 and 75 percent, respectively. Nonetheless, pintail numbers are still 38 percent below the long-term average. Shoveler numbers are up 28 percent overall, with an expected 3.6 million making their way south this fall.

An increase in blue-winged teal (13 percent) and a nearly identical decrease in greenwings (12 percent) means hunters will see similar numbers of those little birds this season. Some regions of the traditional nesting grounds saw dramatic increases in teal while others experienced significant drops. Saskatchewan, for example, had nearly three times the nesting greenwings it had last year, and the number of greenwings nesting in Manitoba more than doubled.

Gadwall numbers dipped 16 percent, but remain 30 percent above the historic average. Wigeon are up 12 percent over last spring's breeding bird count, but they're still 15 percent below the average.

Big-water divers are all down as well. Canvasbacks declined 16 percent and remain at 8 percent below their long-term average of 5.6 million birds. Redheads are off slightly (2 percent).

Checkett says wood ducks seem to be stable throughout their range, but they aren't included in the breeding duck survey because they tend to nest throughout the United States and are difficult to tally.

The regional difference in numbers is mainly the result of varying habitat conditions, he adds. The Dakotas were dry when ducks were heading north to their traditional nesting areas, but some breeding grounds on the Canadian prairies were in excellent shape, with pond counts up 56 percent over last year and 17 percent higher than the long-term average.

"Trying to predict how the upcoming hunting season will play out is like looking into a crystal ball. There are just so many uncontrollable factors. Last year we had good duck populations, but hunting in the South was spotty thanks to local flooding in many areas. There was lots of water, so the ducks just spread out," says Checkett. "The year before that, we didn't get the cold weather up North to push the birds down, so there was a lot of dissatisfaction from hunters, especially in the Southern states. Even though we have good numbers of birds this year, there's really no telling what the upcoming season will bring in terms of hunter success. It really just depends on the weather and other factors."

HOT SPOTS

ALABAMA Upper Delta Wildlife Management Area in Baldwin and Mobile counties provides 36,000 acres of good public hunting.

ARKANSAS The rice region of northeastern Arkansas around Jonesboro attracts high numbers of mallards, pintails and other puddlers.

TEXAS Over 100,000 acres of public lands line the Gulf Coast region. Some are limited-entry hunts, while others have no restrictions.

VIRGINIA Coastal island salt marshes offer unlimited public opportunities, with black ducks and divers the most common species available.

NORTH CAROLINA Numerous large public hunting areas surround Pamlico, Albemarle and Currituck sounds. Also consider hunting around Lake Mattamuskeet.

SOUTH CAROLINA Drawing hunts on Santee Coastal Reserve, Santee-Delta WMA and others have high success rates.

GEORGIA Altamaha WMA's 30,000 acres are located along the central coastal region.

FLORIDA Lake Okeechobee provides abundant public opportunities, but pressure can be high. Apalachicola Bay and Lake Wimico in the northwest are also rated high.

MISSISSIPPI Delta region WMAs offer great hunting on 90,000 acres of WMAs.

KENTUCKY Mississippi River bottomlands host the best waterfowl opportunities.

LOUISIANA Atchafalaya Delta WMA covers 137,000 acres in St. Mary Parish and holds high numbers of birds.

TENNESSEE Reelfoot Lake remains a traditional hot spot, but numerous WMAs along the Mississippi River floodplain offer good public opportunities. --David Hart

Waterfowl Head Count

The total duck estimate for 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 and 35 percent below their long-term average. Scaup numbers this year are at an all-time low, which may be cause for alarm. There is good news in the form of higher pintail numbers, though; they showed a strong improvement of 17 percent from 2004.

Breeding Ground Conditions

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 and summer has helped a little, because the plentiful water aids the survival of hens and their broods. This map makes it clear why mallard numbers suffered this year; 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