The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) report on 2016 Trends in Duck Breeding Populations reveals some interesting information on the forthcoming duck season here in Texas.
Our friends over at Ducks Unlimited note that overall duck numbers in the survey area are statistically similar to last year and remain steady. “Total populations were estimated at 48.4 million breeding ducks in the traditional survey area, which is 38 percent above the 1955-2015 long-term average,” the survey said. “Last year’s estimate was 49.5 million birds.
“The main determining factor for duck breeding success is wetland and upland habitat conditions in the key breeding landscapes of the prairies and the boreal forest. Conditions observed across the U.S. and Canadian survey areas during the 2016 breeding population survey were generally poorer than last year.”
In fact, the total pond estimate for the U.S. and Canada combined was 5.0 million, which is 21 percent below the 2015 estimate of 6.3 million but similar to the long-term average of 5.2 million.
“In light of the dry conditions that were observed across much of the northern breeding grounds during the survey period,” said DU’s chief scientist, Scott Yaich. “It is reassuring to see that the breeding population counts were little changed from last year.
“Total pond counts were similar to the long-term average. Hunting season and winter mortality are a relatively small part of annual mortality, so it’s not surprising to see that populations largely held steady.
“What’s not reflected in the report is that there was fairly significant improvement in habitat conditions after the surveys were completed,” said Yaich.
“In some key production areas, heavy June and July rains greatly improved wetland conditions. This could benefit brood rearing and the success of late nesting species, as well as give a boost to overall production through re-nesting by early nesting species.
“Watching the changing habitat over the spring and summer this year underscores the importance of two things: First, we must simply accept that habitat and populations are going to vary over time. They always have and they always will. Second, that’s why we need to keep a steady hand on the course of our conservation efforts.
“Our job is to steadily make deposits into the habitat bank account so that when the precipitation and other conditions are right, the ducks will do the job that they do so well, which is to produce more ducks and provide us all a nice return on our investments.”
We thought it would be important to look at the top 10 hunted species, their counts and how it will impact certain regions of the state. What happens on the Texas Coast during duck season is vastly different from action taking place in the Panhandle. We are not a one size fits all state and looking at duck counts in general really does nothing.
Let’s start with mallards.
The projected mallard population is 11.793 million, which is up one percent from 2015. That means you can expect numbers similar to last year traversing the Central Flyway. This is great news for hunters in the Panhandle, Hill County and Northeast Texas where mallards are abundant. For hunters on the coast this means little since mallards are considered an exciting bonus to any bag.
Gadwalls are truly the mallard of Texas. What that means is they are to Texas what mallards are to Arkansas or Kansas in that they are the bread and butter bird for much of the state. Gadwall numbers are down three percent from 3.834 million to 3.712 million. That’s a small change, especially with the species that is 90 percent above the 1955-2016 long-term average. Gadwalls are abundant statewide but are especially important for hunters on the coast, in adjacent flooded fields and also through north and East Texas.
Widgeons are up 12 percent from 3.037 million to 3.411 and that’s good for South and Central Texas hunters who commonly take these birds on stock tanks, on Choke Canyon Reservoir and along the Middle and Lower Coasts.
Green-winged teal are up five percent from 4.081 million to 4.275 and are at a whopping 104 percent above the long-term average. These birds are important statewide and are probably the number two bird taken behind gadwall on the Upper Coast.
Blue-winged teal are down 22 percent from 8.547 million to 6.689. They faced the largest drop of any of the key species, and this has already been felt with the early teal season. Bluewings that migrate through Texas early have increased during the regular duck season over the last decade. They are found in fair numbers along the coastal region. This year’s drop will likely decrease some of these sightings.
Northern shovelers (spoonbill) are down 10 percent from 4.391 million to 3.967. Although many hunters do not like to admit it, they often save the day in East Texas and along the coast and rice field areas of the state. This drop will not likely make a big difference.
Pintails are down 14 percent from 3.043 million to 2.618. They are actually down 34 percent from the long-term average and this impacts hunters along the coast. Decreases happen but this is one species we want to always see hold steady or on the uptick as they live in some of the most endangered habitat of any waterfowl.
Middle and Lower Coast hunters can rejoice in knowing redhead numbers are up eight percent from 1.196 million to 1.289. It is not a huge increase, but it is a positive.
Canvasbacks are most abundant on the big East Texas reservoirs, on Choke Canyon reservoir and in certain areas on the coast. They went down three percent from .757 million to .736.
Although few hunters pursue them in Texas, scaup are up 14 percent from 4.395 to 4.992. They are most abundant on big water in East Texas and throughout any of the reservoirs in Texas.
Of course the biggest factor is the weather. We could have a 50 percent increase in mallards in one year and then temperatures in the 50s and 60s throughout the Central Flyway and have a terrible season. However, looking at these numbers gives hunters a chance to compare with what they have experienced in previous years and plan their hunts accordingly.
—story by TF&G STAFF