May survey: Duck numbers up on drier landscape?

Bemidji, Minn. — Steve Cordts isn’t ready to proclaim breeding duck numbers are up in Minnesota this spring. After all, there’s still ground data to compare with his aerial observations. But despite much of the state seeming drier than in past years, duck numbers – as counted during a series of May flights – appear to be in good shape.

“Certainly, duck numbers seemed better (than last year) from the air, across the board for all species,” said Cordts, the DNR’s waterfowl specialist stationed in Bemidji. “All species looked good to me.”

The state’s breeding duck survey, now 48 years old, estimates the number of breeding ducks in the state, with the information used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as that agency sets duck and goose bag limits, and season lengths. That system changed this year, according to Cordts. Starting this fall, the previous year’s information will be used to set season frameworks, something that’s already been done this year. This spring’s duck counts will be used in 2017.

The May aerial survey was completed over the course of two weeks this year, with weather causing a minor stoppage in flight activity before the final two days airborne. During the early part of the survey, Cordts said he documented good wetland conditions in the southwestern part of the state, which had just experienced significant rainfall. But after that, as the survey advanced north, conditions became noticeably more arid.

“Ponds were dry – it was very dry,” Cordts said. After viewing wet conditions during southern flights, “We didn’t really see a sheet-water wetland.”

The final pond count hasn’t been determined. “I don’t know what (the count) will be, other than below average,” he said.

That said, “It didn’t seem like it had much of an effect (on breeding duck numbers),” Cordts added.

Typically, mallards make up just under half the total number of breeding ducks counted in the state. Last year, the mallard count was about 206,000 ducks, and the total estimate was about 524,000 breeding ducks. The other significant duck species in Minnesota’s breeding duck population is the blue-winged teal. All other duck species are classified as “others” in the DNR’s annual report. 

Spring typically influences what duck species are in the state at the time of the survey. Sometimes ducks like scaup and buffleheads are present, though they’re typically not in the state for reproduction purposes; they usually move on to other areas.

As for this year’s mix of birds, “Nothing really seemed out of whack,” Cordts said.

Final estimates of the breeding duck population will be available in coming weeks.

Breeding duck numbers have fluctuated greatly during the nearly 50 years of the state’s survey. Three times has the estimated number been over 1 million – 2004, 2002, and 1994. Low-water years typically have produced duck counts in the 300,000-bird range.

The 10-year average of breeding ducks is about 577,000; the long-term average is about 618,000.

Other birds

Besides ducks, Cordts counts both geese and swans from his perch in the small aircraft.

“Geese (numbers) seemed above average,” he said, adding that several broods were seen, likely earlier than average and coinciding with a green-up slightly ahead of schedule. He said he also noted several flocks of “molt migrants,” birds that are non- or failed breeders en route to the Hudson Bay area, where they will spend summer.

Last year, the breeding goose population was estimated to be 250,000, “considerably less” than the 416,000 counted in 2014 – which for DNR officials was a good thing.

What truly impressed Cordts, however, was the number of swans he observed.

“It continues to shock me how many swans we have,” he said. “There was a crazy number of swans.”

Most of the swans Cordts saw likely were trumpeters, though he admits it’s tough to distinguish those from tundra swans from the plane.

The May aerial bird count covers about 40 percent of the state, Cordts said. Last year, the other 60 percent of the state later was surveyed by air to focus on the swan population. The population estimate following that survey was about 18,000 swans, he said.

Regulations

The DNR has set the dates for this year’s duck- and goose-hunting seasons.

For ducks, the North Zone season will run Sept. 24 through Nov. 22. In the Central Zone, the season will run Sept. 24 through Oct. 2, then will close until re-opening Oct. 8 and continuing through Nov. 27. The South Zone also will open Sept. 24 and will close Oct. 2. It will re-open Oct. 15 (the pheasant season opener) and will run through Dec. 4.

The bag limit for ducks will be six, not to include more than four mallards (two may be hens), three scaup, three wood ducks, two pintails, two redheads, two canvasbacks, and one black duck.

The early statewide goose season will run Sept. 3-18, with a five-goose limit.

The regular goose season will run Sept. 24 through Dec. 23 in the North Zone; Sept. 24 through Oct. 2, and Oct. 8 through Dec. 28 in the Central Zone; and Sept. 24 through Oct. 2, and Oct. 15 through Jan. 4 in the South Zone.

The mourning dove season will run Sept. 1 through Nov. 29.

A noteworthy change from last year: There is no August goose season, and no longer is an “intensive harvest zone.”

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