Georgia Duck Season Should Be Good, Other Areas Hurt By Extended Drought
An abundance of rain and good breeding production up the Eastern coast means Georgia duck hunters should expect a good season. However, news is not the same in other parts of the country.
The Prairie Pothole Region of the Midwest and Canada has been very dry. Delta Waterfowl forecasts that poor breeding conditions in the Prairie Pothole Region will result in a smaller fall flight than waterfowl hunters have experienced for many seasons. Blue-winged teal, green-winged teal and gadwall had average to below-average production. Other key species fared worse, including mallards, pintails, wigeon and canvasbacks.
However, excellent breeding conditions were observed in eastern Canada, which Delta Waterfowl believes fueled strong production of Atlantic Flyway mallards. Good nesting conditions were also present for black ducks, ring-necked ducks and wood ducks. Gadwalls and both green wing and blue winged teal are available in good numbers.
So in a nutshell, hunting will be tougher than average out West, but Georgia hunters should experience a good year.
Georgia is fortunate to have plenty of homegrown wood ducks that had plenty of rainfall this year. Most of our ducks are coming from the Great Lakes and eastward, eastern Canada and the Northeast. WRD reports that for the 2020 season, 66% of the harvested ducks were woodies. This was followed by ringnecks at 10%.
“For the long term, wood duck numbers have been climbing as long as we’ve been keeping up with wood ducks through the breeding birds survey back to 1966,” said Greg Balkcom, WRD’s retired waterfowl biologist. “The Atlantic Flyway wood duck numbers are up a little over 1% for that long term. In the short term, just since 2009, we’re climbing almost 2% a year.”
So, with plenty of rainfall for good breeding areas and a good acorn crop, wood ducks should be in good numbers this fall and that upward population trend should continue.
Kara Nitschke is WRD’s current waterfowl biologist and says that Altamaha and other WMAs along the Georgia coast should offer good duck hunting this season.
WRD and Ducks Unlimited have been working together to restore 377 acres of freshwater wetlands habitat on Altamaha WMA through the installation of water-control structures and rehabilitation of dikes. The Champney Island impoundment consists of four management cells and is currently managed under a 2-year rotational system of agricultural plantings, followed by summer drawdowns for moist-soil plant production.
Extensive flooding in coastal Georgia caused damage to several impoundments. Saturation of the dikes and subsequent recession of floodwaters caused several breaks along the perimeter dikes and at several water control structures. Repair of the structures and dikes was necessary to maintain management on the WMA. This project will retain water in the fall and winter, thus providing valuable foraging habitat to migrating and wintering waterfowl near the Altamaha River. It continues to will be managed by WRD to provide public hunting opportunities.
Kara says walk-in hunting will not be allowed this year to provide a better hunting experience, so plan accordingly.
Ducks Unlimited is a valuable partner with WRD and the Georgia duck hunter. For more information, go to www.ducks.org. For more information on DU’s Georgia projects, go to https://www.ducks.org/georgia/georgia-conservation-projects.
The Prairie Pothole Region of the Midwest and Canada has been very dry, while Georgia and the east coast has experienced above normal rainfall, and ducks need water.
Delta Waterfowl forecasts that poor breeding conditions in the Prairie Pothole Region will result in a smaller fall flight than waterfowl hunters have experienced for many seasons. Blue-winged teal, green-winged teal and gadwall had average to below-average production. Other key species fared worse, including mallards, pintails, wigeon and canvasbacks.
However, favorable conditions were available to eastern-breeding ducks and to boreal-nesting species, such as bluebills and ring-necked ducks. So tough out West, but Georgia hunters should experience a good year, according to Kara Nitschke, WRD’s waterfowl biologist.
“This is a unique year in that the Prairie Pothole Region—the most important duck production area on the planet—is almost universally dry,” said Dr. Frank Rohwer, president and chief scientist of Delta Waterfowl. “A lot of the prairies were dry the past two springs, as well, but at least there were pockets of areas with good wetland conditions. But this year we likely had poor duck production due to many birds overflying the prairies. Those that stayed showed reduced renesting effort and low brood survival. There will be far fewer juveniles in the fall flight, and that’s unfortunate because the best seasons are always those when you’ve got an abundance of young ducks winging South.”
The news out of North Dakota isn’t good for ducks or for duck hunters. With the USFWS annual surveys canceled for a second year in a row due to COVID, waterfowl managers have to rely on North Dakota’s spring survey to speculate about the fall duck flight. Based on those results, it appears this year’s flight may be down significantly compared to last year. Still, waterfowlers can still expect a long season and high limits for the 2021-2022 season. If the drought parching the Prairie Pothole Region continues, however, shortened seasons and lower limits could be on the horizon for 2022-23 and beyond.
“It’s unfortunate not have data from Canada right now with the region in drought,” said Dr. Steve Adair, Ducks Unlimited’s chief scientist. “We’ll have to temper our expectations for the fall flight.”
Although there are no surveys taking place on the Canadian side of the border, Adair says field reports indicate severe drought conditions in southern Manitoba and parts of Saskatchewan. South Dakota and Alberta aren’t as dry, according to the NOAA’s drought monitor, but both show well below average rainfall.
At the epicenter of the drought, North Dakota is currently experiencing its fifth-driest spring on record. It’s a dramatic swing from 2020, which was its sixth wettest year ever. North Dakota’s survey showed pond counts down 80% from 2020 and 67% below the long-term average. Duck numbers are down 27% overall, with mallards down almost 49% from the previous year, and at their lowest number in North Dakota since 1993.
With similar dry conditions present across the border, the duck factory will have a hard time producing more birds.
“When pond numbers are low, we see a decline in brood numbers,” says Adair. “Adult ducks don’t die during a drought, but they don’t breed. Some will stay in the Prairie Pothole Region, while others may spend the season farther north in the boreal forest, but in either case, they won’t breed as much. The impact will be fewer young birds in the fall flight.”
Despite concern that fewer ducks may come south this fall, hunters can still expect long seasons and high bag limits this year. Each year, based on the results of the surveys and population estimates, the FWS sets either restrictive, moderate or liberal length and limit frameworks for the coming waterfowl season. The FWS now uses data from the previous years in determining frameworks, so the decision about the 2021-2022 season had already been made before the rains stopped. However, next season hunters may see the effects of drought reflected in fewer hunting days and lower bag limits.
“If we see pond counts below 50% and mallard numbers down 25%, we might see a restrictive season framework,” said Adair.
Under a restrictive framework, seasons and limits in the four flyways would be cut by as much as half. Without breeding duck survey data for 2021, the FWS will have to estimate a pond count based on the weather, and from that, arrive at an estimate of breeding duck numbers as they set the season frameworks.
Still, there are silver linings to be found when small, shallow prairie wetlands—those most vital to making ducks—dry out, says Rohwer. Little precipitation fell throughout the winter and early spring, and in turn the normally wet pools produced abundant vegetation.
“The drought cycle rejuvenates wetlands with food for hens and ducklings in the following spring,” Rohwer said. “Assuming we have better water next year, ducks will rebound quickly. We could have outstanding duck production.”
Carryover ducks from consistent years of good production also means that populations of adult, breeding ducks—though far more challenging to decoy—remain high. Despite indicating a significant decrease from 2020, North Dakota’s breeding-duck estimate remains 19% above the long-term average. And long-term data indicates that most duck populations are well above average—including a 2019 estimate of 38.9 million breeding ducks, 10% above average. Ethan Massey, a waterfowl biologist with Ducks Unlimited’s Charleston Office, agreed with that assessment on western breed ducks and there might be less juvenile ducks in the bag, but southern hunters should fare well due to the reliance on abundant wood ducks for the majority of the harvest.
Fortunately, the news is better on our side of the continent. Excellent breeding conditions were observed in eastern Canada, which Delta believes fueled strong production of Atlantic Flyway mallards. Good nesting conditions were also present for black ducks, ring-necked ducks and wood ducks. Gadwalls and both green wing and blue winged teal are available in good numbers.
“Atlantic Flyway hunters should have a better season than folks farther west relative to recent seasons,” Rohwer said. “Conditions in the northeast United States were average, and eastern Canada was quite wet.”
While the national flight forecast is less promising than in recent years, Delta Waterfowl encourages hunters to oil their shotguns, tune their calls and get ready. This remains a wonderful era to be a duck hunter.
“There are still plenty of ducks, and we feel the liberal regulations in place for the coming season are entirely appropriate,” Rohwer said. “Hunting has little to no effect on the ebb and flow of breeding duck populations, because primarily we shoot juveniles. Low duck production is likely to result in challenging hunting, but the idea you shouldn’t hunt—whether you fear harming duck populations or experiencing a lack of success—is absurd. Weather events such as cold and precipitation have just as much an effect on hunter success, and I’m confident plenty of people will have good seasons.”
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