June 28, 2018
By Lynn Burkhead
With America's annual Fourth of July birthday celebration approaching, the mid-summer thoughts of thousands of waterfowl hunters across the country are beginning to turn towards fall flights of mallards, pintails, teal, gadwalls, wigeon and other waterfowl species.
While it will be a few more weeks before the official 2018 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey report is issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a few clues can be gleaned from the pilot and biologist reports that have trickled out of Canada, the Dakotas and Montana in recent weeks.
Those reports began in April, continued through May, and ended in early June as the annual survey was performed by biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS), state wildlife agencies, and the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS).
Conducted with airplanes, helicopters, and ground-based crews, the survey work takes a close look at this year's breeding habitat as well as the status of breeding populations for ducks and geese utilizing that habitat. All told, more than two million square miles are covered including some 1.3 million square miles in portions of Alaska, southern and central Canada, and the north-central U.S.
What's the result of this year's survey work by the 16 crews that conducted it? After several years of great habitat and some of the strongest waterfowl breeding efforts on modern record from the prairie pothole region, there's more of a mixed bag of results this spring with some areas being high and dry while others are very wet.
All in all, the guess here - and that's all that it is, a guess - is for habitat conditions to be a bit less favorable than in recent years while the breeding effort remains strong thanks to carry over from last year, the pockets of good habitat conditions that are found, and late nesting efforts where early summer precipitation allows.
With that said, here's a glimpse at some of the habitat reports from the so-called Duck Factory this spring:
Expect good things out of the Big Sky Country where Rob Spangler of the USF&WS notes that conditions are much improved in eastern Montana as compared to last spring.
"Although to the north in Saskatchewan where Phil (Thorpe) is flying it is very dry, the opposite is the case in Montana," indicated Spangler in his report.
"The driest areas in Montana can be found in the northeastern portion of the state with some fair, but mostly good habitat conditions," he continued. "Although the data has yet to be analyzed, the distribution and abundance of waterfowl is definitely a vast improvement over last year.
"We can expect excellent production out of Montana this year!"
From the prairie pothole country of North and South Dakota, it's a mixed bag this year for wetland habitat conditions.
For starters, down near the South Dakota/Nebraska border, things are on the drier side of the spectrum. Ditto for the wetlands of North Dakota too.
"That said, the late season rain last year as well as the above normal snow over the winter, had the country around Parkston and Lake Andes, SD, looking about as good as I have ever seen it and certainly better than it has in the past several years," noted Terry Liddick of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "That trend continued as we moved north through South Dakota until we got to the Aberdeen area and there things began to dry out a bit.
"Waterfowl numbers for all species appear to be up in South Dakota as well as seasonal wetlands," continued Liddick. "By our count at this point (in the 2018 spring survey), wetlands are up 690 over last year as observed from the right side of the plane within the 1/8-mile transect on that side and the duck numbers match. I guess if you just add water they will come!"
According to Jim Bredy of the USF&WS, the southern part of the province was still locked in the deep freeze back in early April.
"We hoped and prayed for warm temperatures and a quick thaw to rapidly fill the wetland basins," noted the biologist who first flew this survey area back in 1988. "We are all fortunate, because that is exactly what happened!"
The result? Superb habitat conditions from the Montana border north to the Edmonton, Alberta area according to Bredy.
"These are the best overall conditions I can recall since I started flying here. In the past, sometimes the short-grass prairie region in the southeastern part of Alberta looked good, while the aspen parkland habitats to the north were marginal. Other times, the parklands were good and the grasslands were in fair to poor condition. This year, I will report that overall, most of the Southern Alberta portion of the survey will be in good to excellent condition. The exception will be the heavily farmed agricultural areas. The ducks did respond with increased duck numbers seen in many of the areas, especially the areas to the south. The parkland raw count duck numbers were down a bit, partially due to the great conditions further to the south, that most likely "short-stopped" some ducks."
Central and Northern Alberta
By the end of May, as Bredy and his crew continued their survey work further north in the province of Alberta, things got a little bit drier.
"As we progressed further to the north and west into the Central Alberta portion of the survey area (strata 75 and 76), the wetland and upland habitat conditions deteriorated, from the better conditions to the south," noted Bredy. "In this area, many of the seasonal wetland basins had depressed water levels, with many of the temporary or "seasonal" basins dry."
Bredy noted that the combination of heavy agricultural activity and unseasonably warm May temperatures were dimming the outlook for the central Peace Region between Grande Prairie and the Peace River.
"We feel the overall good to excellent habitat conditions in the southern portions of the survey area, will help a bit to offset the fair to poor conditions in the Peace Region," he indicated. "We are thus optimistic for good waterfowl production in the southern portion of the survey area between Edmonton and the Montana border (strata 26-29)."
Bredy then noted that this year's duck survey was his last as a Fish and Wildlife Service employee with his retirement looming at the end of June. After four decades of flying the region, he took a retirement tour of the Edmonton Flight Information Centre and the Edmonton Air Route Traffic Control facility, shook hands with voices that had crackled over his radio, and then wished his colleagues well.
"There is a beginning and an end to just about everything," said Bredy. "It has been a great ride, but it is time to go. After flying these surveys for portions of four decades, I am thus signing off. I wish you all fun and safe journeys afield. Take careâ€¦.until we meet again!"
"Another survey safely and successfully completed," reported Phil Thorpe of the USF&WS. "Despite the low precipitation across the province over the previous 10 months, large parts of the survey area remain in good shape for waterfowl nesting and brood rearing. This is in large part because of the long-term wet cycle the province has been in for the last 10 years or so. We observed wetlands flooded out of their margins, flooded farms, and ongoing drainage from smaller water bodies into larger ones, thus flooding the larger ones.
Later in the survey effort, as USF&WS man Walt Rhodes and his crew worked the northern part of the province and portions of nearby Manitoba, unseasonably warm weather was beginning to take its toll.
"I'd expect that even with the below-average precipitation, many areas in the province, like the Missouri Coteau, the parklands, and the southwestern and northwestern grasslands will still have enough good quality habitat to provide good recruitment from the southern Saskatchewan survey area. However, any rain to help replenish low water levels in wetlands and help stimulate growth of cover for nesting waterfowl would certainly help. Drought is part of the prairie life-cycle and is needed for wetland productivity, we can only hope that if the drought has arrived, it doesn't last as long as the wet cycle lasted!"
According to the USF&WS's Walt Rhodes, Manitoba habitat looked good once again during this year's spring survey.
"Wetlands were adequately charged and breeding pairs were sprinkled across the landscape," noted Rhodes. "There was no ice present, including on even the largest water bodies that we cross. The last two years have seen some welcome surface water compared to previous years."
Rhodes did note that unseasonably hot weather was having a negative impact later in May as his crew worked northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba: "Besides the discomfort in the cockpit what this means is the boreal forest and its waterfowl habitat is drying out very quickly and making it ripe for forest fires."
What was Rhodes conclusion? "All in all, it was a smooth 2018 survey over good habitat," he reported. "We were greeted with some forest fires early on that required some pre-planning each morning but overall the weather cooperated, with only one weather day and two mandatory crew rest days. The ice melted quickly and spring progressed as normal, with maybe only very slightly behind (normal weather) in Manitoba. It should be a good waterfowl production year across northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba."
Look for a full report on the 2018 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey when it is released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service later this summer.