By Nick Simonson
A wet fall of 2019 and abundant moisture which carried over into the start of 2020 primed the pump for a successful breeding season for waterfowl in North Dakota’s prairie pothole region. With good recruitment comes increased numbers of ducks for hunters headed out to stake out their favorite slough as the season starts for resident waterfowl hunters on Sat. Sept. 26. Despite drier conditions in the back half of summer, many wetlands remain in good shape, particularly in the eastern third of the Peace Garden State for the upcoming waterfowl hunting season.
“The wetland conditions in the eastern third of the state are quite good for this time of year,” reports Dane Buysse, Conservation Programs Biologist for Ducks Unlimited in North Dakota, adding, “as you move further toward the central portion of North Dakota – I was out just this last weekend – and some of those wetlands are drying up out there and you’re going to see drier conditions as you move to the northwest part of the state.”
North Dakota was unique in comparison to the rest of the nation, as many state wildlife agencies cancelled their spring and summer counts for returning waterfowl and brood surveys due to the Covid-19 pandemic. With social distancing in place, and single-person survey routes drawn up, the North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDGF) was able to tally the state’s waterfowl populations like in previous years, with a little more focus and work by its agents.
“Talking with biologists across the state, it sounds like duck numbers are quite good, I’ve been seeing great duck numbers on the wetlands I’ve been driving by,” Buysse said of the summer survey results, “it’s really cool that we do have data on that, and their mid-July duck production survey showed that you should see a nine percent increase in the number of birds you’re seeing this fall, which is pretty awesome,” he advised.
In addition to an increased number of temporary wetlands which allowed not only more habitat for territorial waterfowl to spread out on across the landscape, but also for more abundant food sources for nesting hens and growing broods, many acres that were normally planted by producers adjacent to pothole sloughs and other duck-rearing lowlands went unused due to the wet conditions. This in turn helped provide better nesting habitat and more cover for ducks and ducklings.
“Those wet conditions last fall carried over into spring and provided an incredible buffet for all those hen mallards and other species of ducks that were coming up to nest here, so they had ideal food sources going into the spring,” Buysse explains, adding, “there’s also a 2.5 million acre prevent-plant count for this year, so that had some additional nesting cover for those birds being those acres weren’t disturbed…which is unfortunate that farmers were unable to plant it, but it does provide some additional habitat for them to nest in.”
For those watching the migration, Buysse is hearing good things from Canada, as production remained good north of the border. Despite it being closed to human travel, again due to the continuing pandemic, it is likely Canadian waterfowl will begin making their way south in earnest in the coming weeks. When they do, North Dakota’s hunters will likely see more migrants than in previous years.
“The adult male blue-wing teal were heading south this past week and it sounds like hunters [in southern Canada] with those early teal seasons were having some incredible success,” he relays, “those birds are beginning to move south, they had decent production up in Canada and it will be interesting to see those birds – as the weather patterns continue to change – how many of them move down into the Dakotas,” Buysse concludes.
More information on the migration, along with events and habitat efforts the organization is carrying out for North Dakota waterfowl can be found at the Ducks Unlimited website: ducks.org. The North Dakota general resident waterfowl season opens Sat. Sept. 26 and runs until Sun. Dec. 6 in the High Plains (1) and Low Plains Units. Nonresident waterfowl seasons are delayed one week and open on Sat. Oct. 3. For more information on waterfowl hunting, visit gf.nd.gov/hunting/ducks.
Featured Photo: Abundant spring waters helped increase duck populations through the provision of food and territory to support strong hatches and good recruitment in 2020. Simonson Photo.