Waterfowl Trends Remain Positive

Outdoors with Forda Birds—By John Andreoni

Last week I jumped through the hoops, was issued a lottery number, and waited to see if it would be called. I wasn’t taking a chance on winning Mega Millions or Powerball but was looking to get the opportunity to draw a duck blind site at Lake St. Marys. For sure, the odds were a lot better at the Mercer Wildlife Area drawing than with the big money lotteries since 72 blind sites were available and 536 tickets issued. In reality, only the first 30 or so blinds are considered decent by the serious waterfowl hunters, so the odds got a little tougher if you belong to that group. Regardless, it made little difference since my number wasn’t drawn, and I think I left after the first 40 blinds or so were pulled.

I wasn’t disappointed in the least that my number didn’t get pulled. A good friend of mine got a good blind, and I imagine I can find a spot in there on occasion if the mood strikes me. Besides, when I did hunt often, most of it was done in harvested grain fields where waiting for the evening flights of feeding birds fit my time frame. I’m not an early riser, and getting up well before sunrise to stumble into a duck blind isn’t my favorite thing to do. Either way, morning or night, it won’t make a bit of difference when or where you hunt unless there are birds in the area. The most current waterfowl surveys tend to show that the 2017 populations are similar to last year. Although good news, it means absolutely nothing unless conditions are favorable to get the birds moving through the area when the season is open. That is always a risky gamble at best.

In terms of numbers, overall breeding ducks were estimated at 47.3 million in the traditional survey area. Last year’s estimate was 48.4 million, which is 34% above the 1955-2016 long-term average. The projected mallard fall flight index is 12.9 million birds which was similar to the 2016 estimate of 13.5 million. Although solid, there is an 11% decrease in mallard numbers which is considered significant by some statisticians. Gadwall, blue-winged teal, northern shoveler, and northern pintail had positive changes from 2016 while American wigeon, green-winged teal, redheads, canvasbacks, scaup, and mallards showed negative numbers compared to last year.

Once breeding numbers are determined, the breeding success is estimated based on wetland and habitat conditions in the prairie country and the boreal forest. The total pond estimate for the U.S. and Canada combined is 6.1 million which is 22% over 2016 estimates of 5.0 million and 17% above the long-term average of 5.2 million. Estimated fall flights could change if water conditions were depleted before the birds took to wing. Another factor that may be significant are the number of birds hatched in parts of the boreal forest that aren’t in the general survey area. The Canadian boreal forest is a vast amount of area covered in timber, ponds, lakes, and bogs making it nearly impossible and impractical to survey completely.

Many waterfowl hunters know of The Prairie Pothole Region of the United States and Canada as North America’s most important waterfowl breeding area. During wet years, the prairies and neighboring parklands typically support more than half of the continent’s breeding ducks. However, while the prairies are commonly referred to as North America’s duck factory, the western boreal forest ranks a close second in its importance to breeding waterfowl. Spreading northward to the Arctic tundra, this vast area of spruce, pine, and other soft woods spans 1.8 million square miles across northern Canada and central Alaska.

I would imagine that a good number of people have no clue what or where the boreal forests are. Basically, the boreal zone is comprised of vast strips of forest land that circles the globe and forms a southern border to the frozen tundra of the arctic. The boreal forest comprises 33% of the world’s forested land, and 28% of that is in Canada. The boreal forest of Canada hold millions of acres of fresh water. Estimates put the number of lakes 10 acres or bigger at 1.5 million. It also holds some of the biggest inland lakes with Great Bear covering 12,000 square miles and Great Slave Lake covering 10,500 square miles. To put that size in perspective, Great Bear could hold the area of almost 600 GLSMs without any trouble. There are also some 9000 miles of rivers running through the Canadian boreal forest.

Millions of ducks, millions of acres of prairie potholes along with the western boreal forest, and millions of acres of water are numbers hard to comprehend when you’re sitting in a duck blind waiting for a single bird to dip over your duck decoys. It would seem that ducks should be everywhere, but that’s not the case. I read somewhere that Ohio duck hunters bag an average of eight ducks a season. I won’t question that figure, but depending on how much time a duck hunter spends in the field or in a water blind, eight birds in the bag might make for a pretty good year.