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spring duck index

June 11, 2013

One thing I've learned with close to two decades of work as a game warden and biologist is the outdoors is relative. No matter the deer population if you draw a tag and fill it, odds are you'll consider it pretty successful. And in similar fashion if the duck index is strong (which it is) but the weather pushes the birds through or you just don't have good "luck" hunting, it's hard to acknowledge a strong waterfowl population. So as the first numbers from the spring waterfowl surveys are crunched keep in mind the numbers may be down from last year...but comparing them to the historical average they are still pretty positive. Here's the details:

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s annual spring breeding duck survey showed an index of 3.9 million birds, down 17 percent from last year but still 73 percent above the long-term average (1948-2012).

Mike Szymanski, waterfowl biologist, said blue-winged teal and gadwall saw the largest decline. “Blue-wings are coming off near-record highs, so it’s not unexpected to see the drop,” Szymanski said.

Blue-winged teal were down 38 percent and gadwall 28 percent. However, they are both well above the long-term average – blue-winged teal 42 percent and gadwall 59 percent.

“Duck numbers are still really good, well above long-term averages,” Szymanski said, while mentioning that total duck numbers for 2013 are similar to estimates over the past decade.

Scaup showed a notable increase from last year, while mallards, pintails, shovelers and canvasback were essentially unchanged.

The spring water index was up slightly from 2012. The water index is based on basins with water, and does not necessarily represent the amount of water contained in wetlands.

Water conditions were good in larger wetlands, but many shallow wetlands were on the verge of drying up the week the survey was conducted. “The somewhat poor wetland conditions probably resulted in losing ducks to Canadian nesting grounds,” Szymanski said. “A big factor was probably that our smaller, shallow wetland basins were not holding much water throughout much of the state and the larger wetlands were all frozen when ducks were migrating through North Dakota.”

Szymanski said water conditions were much better in the northern half of the state. “Duck numbers were down roughly 30 percent in the south central and southeastern areas of the state due to dry conditions,” he said. “However, breeding and renesting conditions aren’t reflected well in our data this year as most of the state got several inches of rain the week following our survey. That won’t change duck numbers, but it will mean better conditions for breeding and raising young.”

Additionally, the loss of CRP acres was evident during the survey, Szymanski said, as massive stretches of land conversion to cropland were obvious. “The loss of grass will hurt production of ducks and other grassland nesting birds,” he added. “However, the recent overly wet conditions will also help bridge the gap a little bit for ducks.”

Breeding was running behind from previous years as more pairs were present and nesting was just getting underway during the survey, Szymanski said. “But we won’t really know how the ducks did until we conduct the July brood survey.”

The July brood survey will provide a better idea of duck production and insight into expectations for this fall.

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