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Published: Tuesday, 7/4/2006

Bald eagle population is soaring

Ohio's bald eagle population reached another milestone this year with the production of more than 200 eaglets for the first time.

A final tally shows a record 206 young birds produced from 110 of 150 total nests in 41 counties, said Leisje Meates, eagle coordinator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

The production is a huge boost from the 135 produced in 2005 - and that was a record. Eagle nests also increased from a record 125 in 2005 to the new record this year. Seventeen of the 110 successful nests produced triplets and 62 produced twins, Meates noted.

"I think it was the result of a lack of a [severe] winter," said Mark Shieldcastle about the tremendous increase in production. He is head of the state's Crane Creek Wildlife Research Station in Ottawa County.

"Females entered the breeding season in very good condition with good fat reserves," Shieldcastle noted, "and we had no major storm events that cost us."

The young eagles will grow to adult size, though they will be "brown" or mottled for several years before taking on the adult plumage with white head and tail. They will fly on their own for the first time, or fledge, during the rest of the summer, depending on when they hatched out.

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Favorable weather the first half of this year has helped contribute to a 14 percent boost in general waterfowl numbers over 2005, according to a preliminary report by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The report, a preliminary look at trends in duck breeding populations in traditional index areas, does not include the continent's eastern survey area. But in central, prairie, western and arctic breeding zones, the total duck population estimate was 36.2 million birds, compared to 31.7 million a year ago and nine percent above the long-term average since 1955.

Seven of 10 major duck species indexed annually showed increases, the USF&WS said.

The abundance of mallards was 7.3 million, slightly above last year's estimate of 6.8 million and similar to the long-term average, the Service said. Blue-winged teal abundance was 5.9 million, up 28 percent over 2005 and 30 percent above the long-term average.

Green-winged teal were estimated at 2.6 million, up 20 percent and 39 percent above long-term numbers. Gadwall were at 2.8 million, up 30 percent and 67 percent, respectively. Redheads, at 900,000, were up 55 percent from last year and up 47 percent over the long term.

Canvasbacks, at 700,000, were up 33 percent over a year ago and 23 percent over long term. Northern shovelers were at 3.7 million, up 69 percent over long term.

American wigeon were at 2.2 million, 17 percent below average, and scaup, or bluebills, were down 37 percent, a record low for the second year. Northern pintails, at 3.4 million, were 18 percent below the long-term average but 32 percent higher than in 2005.

Biologists said that breeding habitat is of better quality than a year ago, with improvements in U.S. and Canadian prairies - the continent's "duck factory" - attributed to average and above-average precipitation, a warm spring and good carryover effects from the summer of 2005.

Pond estimates in all-important prairie Canada were set at 4.4 million, up 13 percent over 2005 and 32 percent above the long-term average. U.S. prairie ponds were estimated at 1.6 million, similar to last year and the long term.

"It looks like we'll have a good chance for liberal [hunting] seasons again this year," said Ohio's Shieldcastle. That likely would mean another 60-day split seasons and a daily six-duck bag.

Shieldcastle also said that with the substantial blue-winged teal numbers, it is possible that the early teal season in September may be increased from nine to 16 days. That will be decided later this summer after flyway conferences.

Two big question marks among waterfowl remain scaup and black ducks. Tracking the scaup decline and explaining it has been difficult, Shieldcastle noted.

A recommendation is being suggested that the harvest of black ducks be trimmed by 25 percent because of declines in counts of that species. "These will be heavy-duty topics at the Mississippi Flyway Council meeting," the biologist said. The Council is set to meet July 18 to 23 in St. Louis.

The largest wintering population of black ducks in North America occurs at Mud Creek Bay, a private, off-limits refuge of the Winous Point Shooting Club off Sandusky Bay. But even there numbers seem to be tailing off and explanations are incomplete.

One theory has it that mallards are encroaching on traditional swamp-forest black duck range in eastern North America. Mallards are more aggressive and may be diluting their black duck cousins by interbreeding with them, or simply forcing them out of some areas. On the other hand, Shieldcastle noted, in some areas black duck numbers started to drop before mallards showed up, so some habitat factor could be interfering with reproduction.



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