N.D. duck index dips, but remains well above long-term average

The numbers are in, and North Dakota’s annual spring duck survey shows an index of 3.9 million birds, down 17 percent from last year, but still 73 percent above the long-term average since 1948.

Blue-winged teal and gadwalls saw the largest declines, down 38 percent and 28 percent, respectively.

“Blue-wings are coming off near-record highs, so it’s not unexpected to see the drop,” said Mike Szymanski, waterfowl biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. Both species also remain higher than the long-term average — blue-winged teal by 42 percent and gadwall 59 percent.

Scaup numbers were up, while mallards, pintails, shovelers and canvasbacks essentially were unchanged.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the spring water index was up only slightly from 2012, which was a dry year. Timing could be part of it, because many shallow wetlands were on the verge of drying up the week the survey was conducted.

The picture likely has changed with the heavy rains that have fallen in the past couple of weeks.

“The somewhat poor wetland conditions probably resulted in losing ducks to Canadian nesting grounds,” Szymanski said. “A big factor was probably that our smaller, shallow wetland basins were not holding much water throughout much of the state and the larger wetlands were all frozen when ducks were migrating through North Dakota.”

Szymanski said water conditions were much better in the northern half of the state.

“Duck numbers were down roughly 30 percent in the south central and southeastern areas of the state due to dry conditions,” he said in a news release. “However, breeding and renesting conditions aren’t reflected well in our data this year as most of the state got several inches of rain the week following our survey. That won’t change duck numbers, but it will mean better conditions for breeding and raising young.”

Szymanski said loss of land in the Conservation Reserve Program was evident, and massive stretches of grass have been coverted to cropland.

“The loss of grass will hurt production of ducks and other grassland nesting birds,” he added. “However, the recent overly wet conditions will also help bridge the gap a little bit for ducks.”

Breeding was running behind from previous years as more pairs were present and nesting was just getting underway during the survey, Szymanski said. “But we won’t really know how the ducks did until we conduct the July brood survey.”

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