2023 is off to a good start, at least when it comes to waterfowl production. According to the April 30 prairie breeding condition map from Delta Waterfowl Foundation, Canada and the northern states showed promising amounts of water on the landscape, quite possibly setting the stage for a good fall flight. Delta’s map shows “good” conditions throughout most of the Dakotas, Montana, and Manitoba—all important parts of the “duck factory.” The prairies of Saskatchewan and Alberta are dryer, but even so, those conditions still rate “fair” with only a few areas of “poor” conditions. “There are some dry spots on the Canadian prairies, but ducks are mobile and can find habitat,” Mike Buxton, who coordinates Delta’s surveys, tells Field & Stream.
“We see a mix of water conditions, but overall signs are encouraging,” says Buxton. Delta looks at rain and snowfall data as well as several other metrics as it models wetland conditions throughout the year. In addition, Delta works with its trappers and hen-house nesting structure cooperators for first-hand reports on habitat conditions. Buxton has personally seen very good signs in North Dakota, a crucial state for duck production. “East of Bismarck there is water beyond the cattail rings in the small wetlands,” he says. Wet conditions mean there will be plenty of invertebrates to feed ducklings.
He adds that the Dakotas, which suffered through very dry conditions in 2021, could see depressed predator numbers that might boost nesting success. He explains that typically, during times of dry weather and poor duck production, raccoons can find neither duck eggs nor amphibians to eat. Add a long winter on the prairies, and nest-predator populations may still be down.
Although the map is encouraging, Buxton cautions that is only a snapshot. “Water conditions look fairly good now. You still need rain to refill the ponds through June, July for nesting and re-nesting and even into August to give the broods places to hide,” he says. “Ideally, you need water through August.”
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Meanwhile, the USFWS is conducting its annual Waterfowl Habitat and Breeding Population Survey. The USFWS has conducted the survey since 1955, flying transect routes over 2 million acres of prime prairie breeding habitat. Although known as the “May pond count,” the survey also counts birds and runs from mid-May to mid-June. The results will be analyzed and released in August.
For now, it’s too soon to know for sure, and we can only wait and watch for more rain on the prairies. At this point, Mike Buxton remains optimistic for the fall. “We should see more juvenile birds this year, and those are the ones most likely to end up in a hunter’s bag,” he says.
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