Staying true to their mid-August release date of recent years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released the 2019 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey Report.
Unfortunately, also staying true to an idea that was predicted a few weeks ago, the overall breeding population number contained in that voluminous 78-page report has fallen off yet again. That news comes after survey work this spring and early summer by biologists with USFWS and the Canadian Wildlife Service found drier conditions on much of the Prairie Pothole Region and other traditional nesting grounds in the northern U.S. and southern Canada.
“In general, habitat conditions during the 2019 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey (WBPHS) were similar to or declined relative to 2018, with a few exceptions,” stated a USFWS news release. “Much of the Canadian prairies experienced below-average precipitation from fall 2018 through spring 2019.”
That release did note, however, that the exception to this year’s drier conditions in Canada was the northern U.S. Great Plains: “The U.S. prairies experienced average to above-average precipitation over most of the region.”
After this year’s survey work was wrapped up a few weeks ago, the data collected in the field and subsequent number crunching in the office found 38.9 million breeding ducks for 2019 in the so-called Duck Factory.
While only down six-percent from the 2018 breeding population figure of 41.2 million, this year’s mark continues the recent downward trend of survey numbers. It’s also a far cry from the 47.3 million observed in 2017, and the first time that spring breeding numbers have dipped below the 40 million mark since 2008.
Still, biologists point out that the glass remains half-full since this year’s breeding number remains some ten percent above the long-term average (LTA) from 1955-2018.
With a mixture of good and not so good news for waterfowlers in the Lower 48, the 2019 breeding numbers as seen in the USFWS report and in a Delta Waterfowl table show that three very important puddle duck species — mallards, gadwalls and green-winged teal — showed increases this spring as compared to a year ago. That’s better news from last summer, when only the American wigeon showed an increase from the previous year.
Mallards, the most popular duck species for hunters in the North American continent’s four different flyways, showed a breeding population number of 9.42 million breeders in 2019, up two percent from the 2018 figure of 9.26 million breeders. What’s more, this year’s greenhead breeding duck figure is some 19 percent above the LTA figure.
Gadwalls reversed the big drop they suffered a year ago, rising 13 percent from the 2.89 million breeders recorded in 2018 to 3.26 million breeders this year. And like the mallard, federal officials say that his year’s gadwall figure is well above the LTA mark, too. In fact, gadwalls — or gray ducks as some call them — are a whopping 61 percent above that 1955-2018 LTA figure.
Green-winged teal are another bright spot in this year’s breeding duck number report, checking in at 3.18 million birds in 2019 as compared to 3.04 million in 2018. That’s not only a four-percent increase from a year ago, it also puts greenwings 47 percent above the LTA.
While American wigeon didn’t rise any — statistically speaking, that is — from last year’s figure of 2.82 million breeders, the 2019 figure of 2.83 million breeders is still just a slight tick up from 2018 numbers. That figure for baldpates is also eight percent above the LTA.
What about the other common duck species measured each year by the annual USFWS breeding number’s report? Unfortunately, the news there is much more mixed, down in general from a year ago, but still healthy as compared to the LTA numbers for each species. The exception, of course, remains the beleaguered northern pintail and scaup, where the news remains glum at best.
Those other species include: blue-winged teal (5.43 million breeders in 2019, down 16 percent from 6.45 million in 2018 — but still six percent above the specie's LTA); northern shovelers (3.65 million in 2019, down 13 percent from the species' mark of 4.21 million in 2018 — but still 39 percent above the LTA); northern pintails (2.27 million in 2019, down four percent from last year’s mark of 2.37 million and down 42 percent from the LTA); scaup (both lesser and greater scaup combined, 3.59 million in 2019, down 10 percent from the mark of 3.99 million in 2018 and down 28 percent over the LTA); redheads (730,000 in 2019, down 27 percent from 2018’s figure of a million and a dead heat with the species’ LTA figure); and canvasbacks (650,000 in 2019, down five percent from the mark of 690,000 in 2018, but still up 10 percent over the LTA).
The slight decline in overall 2019 duck breeding numbers isn’t a surprise when one considers that the other part of the annual survey work by the USFWS and CWS — May pond count numbers — fell to 4.99 million, down five percent from the 2018 May pond count number of 5.23 million. This year’s figure is also five percent below the LTA.
On the Canadian side of the border, the drop was even more precipitous, falling to 2.86 million in 2019 as compared to 3.66 million a year ago. That figure is 22 percent below 2018 numbers and 19 percent versus the LTA.
On the U.S. side of the border, the habitat news was much better with May pond counts at 2.14 million versus 1.57 million a year ago. This year’s figure for the northern U.S. is up 36 percent from a year ago and up 26 percent over the LTA.
“It’s a tale of two countries this year,” said Dr. Frank Rohwer, President and Chief Scientist of the Bismarck, North Dakota-based Delta Waterfowl in a news release. “Canada started out dry, and it got drier. The U.S. prairies, particularly in the Dakotas, started wet and stayed wet That bodes well for renesting and duckling survival in the Dakotas.”
“Overall both total ponds and total populations of breeding waterfowl in the Prairie Pothole Region were down slightly,” noted Ducks Unlimited Chief Scientist Dr. Tom Moorman in a news release.
“However, important breeding areas in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan were much drier than last year, which contributes to reduced numbers of breeding waterfowl observed in the survey. Fortunately, eastern North Dakota and South Dakota saw an increase in both ponds and breeding waterfowl, especially mallards, blue-winged teal, gadwalls, northern shovelers and northern pintails.”
Keep in mind that while the news is mixed this year, things are still in a much better place than they were a generation ago when terrible drought gripped the Duck Factory and caused duck numbers to plummet to historic lows.
“The last long-term drought period that we had across the breeding grounds was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when our bird counts were way down and we had more restrictive regulations,” said Jim Dubovsky of the USFWS’s Division of Migratory Bird Management in Lakewood, Colorado in another recent Ducks Unlimited news release.
“Mother Nature has a lot to say about when and where these birds migrate, but in terms of having the habitat conditions needed to produce waterfowl, we’ve been in a good place for quite a long time.”
Also keep in mind that the numbers mentioned above are simply the springtime breeding index figures for each species. And since ducks are resilient, usually finding good habitat when it exists, fall flight numbers should still be good this autumn. As is usually the case — as long as the habitat is there — the ducks will typically be there, too.
“Typically, when the Dakotas are wet and southern Alberta and Saskatchewan are dry, we see the aforementioned species settle in the Dakotas, reminding us that we must conserve habitat across the prairies because it is rare for the entire Prairie Pothole Region to be wet,” said DU’s Moorman in the news release. “Ultimately, however, hunting success and numbers of birds observed will vary with the onset of fall and winter cold fronts and arrival of winter conditions necessary to force birds to migrate, and also with regional habitat conditions.”
Meaning that once again, there should be plenty of ducks winging their way south across North America this fall and winter, much to the delight of duck hunters waiting in blinds, flooded timber, and marshes as their canine retrieving pals wait and whine in anticipation.
So, grab your dog, camo, decoys, calls, and the rest of your gear and prepare to head afield in coming weeks to see if you don’t agree. Because ready or not, the 2019 fall migration of ducks and geese will be coming to your local flyway sooner than you think.