Duck numbers look good, but may be late

It may take winter storms to get them to migrate south to Idaho.

pzimowsky@idahostatesman.comSeptember 12, 2013 

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PETE ZIMOWSKY — pzimowsky@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

When it comes to waterfowl hunting, hunters might think about saving the best for last.

It's definitely going to be a waterfowl season where northern birds make the difference, and the good hunting may not start until around Thanksgiving, depending on the weather.

Duck numbers overall remain strong this year across the United States and in breeding grounds to the north, where Idaho gets most of its ducks.

Despite slight declines overall in duck populations since last year, most species remain well above long-term averages, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

That's not the case for local ducks in Idaho.

Desert potholes and reservoirs were low, and biologists expect that affected local duck nesting.

BELOW AVERAGE

Duck production at Lake Lowell was below average because the lake was so low during nesting season it was out of the vegetation where ducks nest, said Addison Mohler, wildlife biologist at Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge in Nampa.

"It (the water level) dropped really fast and really early," he said.

For example he said, grebes that frequent the lake for nesting could not nest because there was no water in the weeds on the edge of the lake.

The extremely low water at the lake also means that hunting conditions will not be good, like they were last year.

The water is 500 yards from vegetation in some areas, and that means hunters won't be able to launch boats.

It also means that hunters will have to drag their gear and a portable blind out on the mud flats because they can't construct permanent blinds at the lake.

"They only do that once or twice and they don't do it anymore," he said.

DROUGHT'S EFFECT

Early hunting for local ducks may be so-so in other areas, too.

The drought definitely has an effect on nesting ducks because desert potholes, where ducks try to raise broods, didn't get the spring moisture.

There is a bright spot in some areas in the Valley that held water earlier.

Local duck production was OK on some marshes and ponds because the hens got off early broods before things dried up, according to Michelle Commons Kremner, regional wildlife biologist with Idaho Fish and Game.

She cited the number of ducks she saw at the marshy areas near the Fish and Game's regional office in Nampa.

In some cases, she explained, with the mild winter, local ducks got off broods early when water conditions were adequate.

"The early hatch was fine," she said.

Hens that hatched later had adverse conditions because of dry weather.

Because of the Treasure Valley's continued mild winters, local ducks are nesting and getting off broods earlier, in mid- or late May.

Hunting for local ducks early in the season may be good for the first week or so but will likely give out fast.

That will mean that Idaho hunters will depend on northern birds for some of their best shooting.

PROMISING NUMBERS

That picture offers hope because there should be good migrations of waterfowl from the north into Idaho. Still, that depends on whether there is cold weather in the north to drive the birds south.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's 2013 Trends in Duck Breeding Populations report shows waterfowl populations estimated at 45.6 million breeding ducks.

It's a 6 percent decrease from last year's estimate of 48.6 million birds, but it is 33 percent above the 1955-2012 long-term average.

"This spring saw abundant moisture in much of the heart of North America's most important duck breeding areas," said Dale Humburg, Ducks Unlimited's chief scientist.

"That bodes well for duck breeding success this summer and hopefully for hunting this fall."

There is still concern with the continuing loss of nesting habitat in breeding areas because ducks need both water and upland habitats to successfully raise their young.

The ongoing loss of grasslands and wetlands across the Prairie Pothole Region will continue to impact the number of ducks in the fall flight, he said.

Conditions observed across the U.S. and Canadian survey areas during the annual population and habitat survey were improved or similar to last year in many areas due to average to above average annual precipitation.

The exception was southeastern Canada, south-central Alberta along the Montana border, the northeastern U.S. and portions of Montana and the Dakotas.

Of the 10 species surveyed, seven were similar to last year's estimates, including mallards.

Scaup and blue-winged teal were significantly below last year's estimates.

American wigeon were 23 percent above last year. Mallards, similar in number to 2012, are 36 percent above the long-term average.

Two species (northern pintail and scaup) remained below their long-term average and North American management goals.

You can see information on populations of different duck species online at ducks.org/2013ducknumbers.

Pete Zimowsky: 377-6445, Twitter: @Zimosoutdoors

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