What The Surveys Say

The numbers offered reason for cautious optimism, but fall hunting depends, as it always does, on the weather

Over the years, I guess I've done my share of traveling. I've visited four of the Canadian provinces and something like 43 of the 50 states. I've lived in Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Kansas and Wyoming. Since most of this rambling led to some sort of outdoor adventure, I've spent a lot of time in a lot of places watching the sky--talking about the weather, wondering about the weather, worrying about the weather. And everywhere I've been, the natives have commented on how utterly perverse their weather always is.

I don't want to get into a battle of weather tales, so I won't say that weather on the plains is weirder than it is anywhere else. I'll just say the weather on the plains is plenty weird.

A few years ago, my family and I decided to take a winter float trip in eastern Wyoming, just to ease our cabin fever. As I recall, we hit the North Platte on February 8, and that afternoon, my three daughters went swimming. I didn't have a thermometer with me, but I'd guess the thermometer topped out at about 82 degrees that day, as sunny and clear a June afternoon as you could ever want dropped down in the middle of a prairie winter.

As I write this, it's mid-September. Yesterday, the high temperature in Cheyenne was 77. About an hour ago, the wind swung into the north, a cloudbank rolled in, the temperature dropped about 25 degrees in an hour, and it snowed hard. Tomorrow, it's supposed to be back up to 70.

I offer this as an alibi. Faithful readers of this column--and if any of those really exist, I pledge to you my eternal gratitude--will recall that, last spring, I was quite concerned about the size of the fall flight this year. At the time, the northern prairies had been in the grip of two or three years of drought, and because of the drought, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had released huge acreages of CRP for emergency haying and grazing.

I sent off a column reflecting on these conditions. Two days later, around April 8, the northern prairies got one of those mammoth sloppy spring snowstorms, the kind that can break a drought in two days. Bruce Batt, chief biologist for Ducks Unlimited, happened to be in southern Canada when the storm passed and immediately sent out a celebratory e-mail to waterfowl groupies--it was the moisture waterfowl managers and hunters alike had prayed for.

As the weather warmed through April, the pattern of moisture continued. When biologists did their annual survey of the number of May ponds, they found the number of spring wetlands in southern Canada had more than doubled from the number they had seen in 2002 while marshes on the U.S. side of the pothole region had increased by 30 percent.

When the prairies are dry in the spring, many puddle ducks drift north, looking for landscapes that offer some chance of successful nesting and brood rearing. In exceptionally dry years, large numbers of mallards and pintails may end up in the tundra after extending their northward migration an extra 2,000 miles or so. This saps hens of energy they need to produce eggs, discourages re-nesting and generally reduces the number of young birds produced.

The sudden filling of the northern prairies last spring came just as early migrants like mallards and pintails began to arrive. Lots of water is never bad news for ducks, but each species had its own reaction to the improved conditions. The difference is one more reminder that ducks are different--each species fills a unique niche and feels changes in habitat and weather in its own way.

On the traditional pothole survey, mallard estimates were up by six percent from the 2002 surveys and six percent over the long-term average. It was a relatively modest response, considering the improvement in moisture, but it really reflects the mallard's innate flexibility and toughness. Nearly 8 million mallards stopped to breed in the potholes last spring, more than twice the number of any other duck except the blue-winged teal.

The other early spring migrant, the pintail, showed a much greater reaction to the increase in May ponds. Breeding pintails were up 43 percent over survey estimates in 2002, heartening news for sprig fans everywhere. The difference between the response of mallards and pintails reflects a difference in their tastes in nurseries. Pinnies dote on shallow wetlands in extensive tracts of native grass--the April deluge left them just the sort of puddles they prefer. However, over the last 50 years, their preference for this sort of habitat has caused them problems. The shallow potholes are the first to dry up during a drought and the easiest to drain anytime. Probably for that reason, pintail numbers remain 39 percent under their long-term average.

The impact of the sudden influx of water was most pronounced among the later-nesting puddle ducks. Estimates of breeding green-winged teal increased by 15 percent from 2002 and remain 46 percent over the long-term average. Gadwall numbers were up 14 percent from 2002 and are 55 percent above the long-term average. Wigeon are up nine percent from 2002 estimates and are three percent below long-term average.

The latest nesting birds drew special benefit from the new water. Estimates of blue-winged teal in the potholes jumped 31 percent over 2002 estimates and are 23 percent over the long-term average. Shovelers did even better--56 percent more breeding birds than in 2002, a mark that leaves spoonbills 72 percent over their long-term average.

Of course, increases in numbers of breeding ducks are only the first step toward a large fall flight. The conditions for nesting and brood rearing were mixed across the pothole country. One of the problems with filling wetlands that have been low or dry is that the new water often floods cover on the margin of the basin. For most puddle ducks, this is a less-than-perfect arrangement.

Once the hens hatch their broods, the new families need places to feed, grow and finally get into the air. Most puddle duck broods work their way from shallow marshes with lots of emergent vegetation and insects to deeper, more permanent wetlands as the summer progresses. The federal index of July ponds is a rough estimate of the condition of mid-summer habitat. In 2003, there were 35 percent more July ponds than in 2002, but that number is still eight percent below the long-term average.

Summer brood-rearing conditions in Alberta were better than they were last year but still much poorer than average. The situation in Saskatchewan was spotty, but the number of July ponds was about average and surveyors saw an average number of broods, good news after several years of poor production. Manitoba dried out as the summer progressed--July brood numbers were up from last year's figures but still 36 percent below average. Summer conditions were spotty in eastern Montana and the western Dakotas, but July brood numbers were 14 percent above the long-term average. The eastern Dakotas had good numbers of summer wetlands and produced numbers of July broods that were 46 percent above the long-term ave


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates a fall flight of about 10.3 million mallards, similar to last year's. If the spring and summer estimates hold up, we should see more teal and a few more pintails, although the way the season finally looks over our gun barrels will be driven by--what else?--the weather. At this point, I can only hope that the September snow on my lawn this morning is a harbinger of things to come for us all. At this point, all I can do is hope--maybe this year, the ducks that were produced in the potholes last summer won't get the chance to winter there.

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