Early indications from the continent's "duck factory" - the U.S. and Canadian prairies - are that waterfowl production this summer has remained high despite dry conditions in many areas.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's annual report on breeding duck numbers are promising, according to an analysis by Ducks Unlimited, the prominent wetlands and waterfowl conservation organization. Breeding ducks were estimated to total 41.8 million in survey areas, down only slightly from the record of 43.4 million tallied in 1999.
This year's estimate is 27 per cent higher than the long-term average, which translates into plenty of ducks flying south this fall. The fish and wildlife service will announce a fall flight index in about a month, but the annual breeding-duck survey usually indicates the relative strength of the index.
Ducks Unlimited analysts said that they expect little change in bag limits or season lengths overall. Hunter success, however, ultimately depends on favorable weather patterns within specific flyways during hunting seasons and breeding success of ducks that use those flyways.
"There are no major surprises in the (USF&WS) report, although I think many who tracked weather this spring would have expected the overall population count to be more reduced than the final estimate,'' summed Dr. Bruce Batt, DU's chief biologist.
Pond counts in the prairies on both sides of the border were down 41 per cent from 1999 and 20 per cent below average. "This normally would have resulted in a much more reduced breeding population estimate," Batt said. "Nevertheless, it looks like we can be quite confident that most species are doing quite well." He credits the strong breeding numbers to increased rain in late spring.
Of 10 key species, mallards exhibited the largest drop in breeders, down 12 per cent. But mallard numbers were exceptionally high in 1999 at 10.8 million breeders, the second highest level since 1955.
Green-winged teal, on the other hand, were up 21 per cent since 1999 and have increased 56 per cent in two years. Blue-winged teal were up four per cent to a new breeder high of 7.4 million.
Ducks Unlimited said it remains concerned about the continued declines of scaup (bluebills) and pintails, the only two species below goals set by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.
Pintails, once second in abundance after mallards, are 33 per cent below long-term average at 2.9 million and have been declining since around 1980, DU said. Scaup are 25 per cent below long-term average. at 4 million and have been in decline since 1985. Answers to the declines have been elusive.
The Aleutian Canada goose, one of the first species listed as endangered, has recovered to the point that it likely will be removed from the federal endangered species list, according to DU.
The Aleutian, a West Coast race of the familiar Canada goose, had dwindled to just 800 birds by 1966, when it was protected as endangered. The species suffered from losses or degradation of key migratory and wintering habitats, plus the introduction of predators on island nest sites in Alaska.
The majority of Aleutians winter in the Central Valley of California, where wetlands losses have been dramatic. But concentrated conservation efforts in the Central Valley by DU and public wildlife agencies has made maximum use of remaining habitat and has helped restore other habitat. The species nests only on remote islands in southwest Alaska's Aleutian chain.
By 1991, Aleutians had rebounded to 6,300 birds, which prompted a reduction in status from endangered to threatened. Today there are some 37,000 Aleutians, more than four times the goal set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is in charge of listing and delisting endangered species.
The dates for the upcoming early migratory gamebird hunting seasons have been set by the Ohio Wildlife Council, which issued few changes from the corresponding 1999 seasons.
The two noteworthy changes include an increase in the daily bag limit for early season Canada geese, from four to five, and new hours for the dove hunting season.
Legal dove hunting hours on private lands during the first 10 days and the rest of the season will be sunrise to sunset, but the first 10 days on public hunting land the hours will be noon to sunset.
The Ohio mourning dove, early Canada goose, teal, rail, moorhen (gallinule), and snipe hunting seasons all will begin Sept. 1 statewide.
The dove season will run through Oct. 16 and resume Nov. 3 through 26. The daily bag will be 12 birds.
The early goose season will run through Sept. 15 with a daily bag of five except in the Magee Marsh(Crane Creek)/Ottawa Refuge, Mosquito Creek, Mercer, and Killdeer Plains reporting zones, where the limit will be two geese.
Teal season will run through Sept. 16 with a bag of four a day.
Sora and Virginia rails may be hunted through Nov. 9 with a daily bag of 25.
Moorhens, or gallinules, may be hunted through Nov. 9 with a daily bag of 15.
Snipe may be hunted through Nov. 26 and Dec. 4 through 23 with a bag of eight a day.
Woodcock may be hunted Oct. 13 through Nov. 26, with a bag of three a day.
Hunting hours, except for the dove provisions, will be sunrise to sunset for all other species.
Hunters pursuing migratory birds must complete a Harvest Information Programsurvey when purchasing a new hunting license, which will be needed on Sept. 1. State and federal ducks stamps also will be required to hunt geese and teal.
New licenses will go on sale Aug. 16.
Steve Pollick is the Blade's outdoor writer.