Waterfowl Program directors react to survey with positive outlook

Published 11:15 am Wednesday, August 30, 2023

By Hunter Cloud
The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — Duck season is nearly back in Mississippi and Louisiana and the offseason is almost over. Louisiana Waterfowl Program Director Jason Olszak returned from the Mississippi Flyway Council meeting Monday and looks ahead to the early teal season.

Mississippi Waterfowl Program Director Houston Havens served his last year as the chairman of the Flyway Council this year. He said it was a busy week.

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The council discussed the United States Fish and Wildlife Service 2023 Waterfowl Survey results from the prairie pothole region. USFWS’s survey was published on Aug. 18, marking a step closer to the hunting season.

Each year, the USFWS releases a survey conducted in May of the ducks returning to the breeding grounds in the prairie pothole region containing Manitoba, Saskatchewan Provinces and North Dakota. A majority of ducks hunted in Louisiana and the Mississippi Flyway are bred in this region.

Olszak said he was a bit surprised by the results. Overall, ducks were at an abundance of 32.32 million. He had higher expectations for the 2023 survey, but a lot of the prairie conditions were still dry. Olszak said he remained hopeful the breeding population would produce a good brood of juvenile ducks.

“I heard there were exceptional conditions in the Dakotas for the dabbling ducks. A recent brood survey showed increases in brood numbers. Juvenile birds will be more of what we shoot,” Olszak said. “I’m not a doomsayer. I still have some high expectations. The pintail rebound was a surprise to me. They breed further west and north and will move to new areas to breed sometimes. Pintails are an enigma. I was not expecting a 25 percent jump, but it happened.”

Pintails bounced back 24 percent from 2022 survey numbers with 2.2 million birds. The population remains 43 percent below the long-term average.

A good hatch

Havens said there was some good news with newly released brood data from North Dakota, a key area for duck production as the birds migrate from there to Mississippi, were good. North Dakota Game and Fish reported an 80 percent jump in the brood surveys for ducks.

They expect a fall flight similar to the flights in 1998, 2004 and 2020 which will be 23 percent above last year’s fall flight. 2023’s duck brood survey was the 76th annual survey conducted in North Dakota. The average duck brood size was 6.5 ducklings.

Looking to the winter

Mallards on the other hand had a significant drop in numbers as did blue winged teal. USFWS’s survey reported Mallards were at 6.13 million which was 23 percent below the long term average. Blue-winged teal numbered 5.3 million which was 19 percent below the 2022 estimate.

“We certainly don’t like to see multi-year declines in duck breeding populations like we are currently seeing with total ducks and mallards, but it is good to see species like northern pintails make a nice increase,” Havens said. “For Mississippi hunters, this year’s breeding populations and habitat conditions should continue to produce a liberal season framework. Hunting success will depend on good duck production this summer to provide a strong fall flight. As well, winter weather systems from the north will need to provide consistent southern migrations.”

Farmers Almanac predicts the 2023-24 winter will be cold and snowy from Jackson and north while everything south of Jackson will be mild and wet. Currently, Mississippi is in an abnormally dry spell and the forecast shows it will likely be a dry fall.

Havens, with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, said the dry year could be a positive heading into the waterfowl season. In previous years, the Mississippi River has flooded well into August but this year it has not flooded for as long.

“Dry years sometimes allow for wetlands to draw down and produce vegetation and duck food when they otherwise wouldn’t,” Havens said. “So long as we get some rain later in the year to fill them back up, these areas can end up being very productive. Areas with water pumping capabilities usually do very well in the early season when we have relatively dry conditions.”

Olzsak said the Mississippi Flyway Council made a recommendation to maintain a liberal duck season with a 60-day season and 6-duck limit. All species-specific bag limits will remain the same in 2024 for Louisiana and Mississippi.

The mottled duck bag limit will have a change this season. Olzsak said mottled ducks can not be hunted for the first 15 days of the regular duck season from November through January. The bag limit for mottled ducks is 1 per day for the rest of the 45 days of duck season.

Studies have found that 50 percent of the mottled duck population is harvested in Louisiana during the first 15 days of the season. Mottled ducks have had challenges in population, and Louisiana is taking a cautious approach to management.

Early teal season

Green-winged teal had a good year. The population increased by 16 percent from 2022 and increased by 15 percent compared to the long-term average. Teal are one of the top 3 harvested ducks in Louisiana every year.

Early Teal season will open in Louisiana on Sept. 15 and last 16 days. Olszak said they look forward to the Early Teal season and have been known to shoot blue-winged teal into the “big” duck season from November to January. Teal are an important species to Louisiana waterfowl hunting, but there are some habitat concerns at home.

“Green-winged teal were up in the report, but blue-winged teal were down 20 percent. Brood reports are really good from that core breeding area,” Olszak said. “The dry spell is a concern for us. Marshes are drying up, and our rain has been pretty spotty when we get rain. Some people might think ‘If I’m the only one with water, then the ducks will be there.’ It might be the case, but a bigger thing is you need to have a broadscale wetland on the landscape. I’m concerned about north Louisiana. If they do not get rain, the birds will likely fly over and head to the coast.”

Abnormally dry conditions will concentrate birds, and the harvest would not be equal across the state. He said unless they get a bunch of rain, managers might have to pump a lot of water, which could be an economic gamble.

Teal are beginning the migration south towards Mexico. The shorter photoperiod triggers the move, but a cold front up north helps push the birds south as well. Olszak said he has heard reports of teal already in Louisiana.

“Most of the teal here right now are males. They don’t have any responsibilities after breeding and head south earlier. A trickle of birds is not uncommon in August,” Olszak said. “I talked to some colleagues in northern states, and they are starting to see more. I would expect it to pick up little by little. The peak migration for Louisiana is not until late September, so we try to set the teal season dates for as late as we can in September.”

Rails and gallinules, birds which live in the marshes, will be open for harvest during the teal season. They live in Louisiana during the spring and summer, so your best chance at hunting rails or gallinules is during the September season.

One way duck hunters can prepare for the fast rocketing teal is dove season. Louisiana’s opening day is Sept. 2 for the dove season. Olszak said the heat might take a toll on hunters and dogs, so stay hydrated during the dove season opener.

“Doves seem to not be as affected by heat. The biggest effect from the heat on doves will be the productivity of plants,” Olszak said. “Millet or sunflower might not have been as productive with the heat, and there may not be as much seed on the ground.”

Conservation efforts

Duck hunters and waterfowl enthusiasts can continue to support waterfowl populations by purchasing duck stamps, hunting licenses and the federal duck stamp. Louisiana’s duck stamp and waterfowl license go towards habitat projects and research in the state. Federal duck stamp funding goes to the pothole prairie region to acquire needed habitat for ducks.

“It is in essence, the best thing people can do for ducks,” Olszak said. “Those who own land and can manage it can continue to do it. Or if you do not, you can seek advice on managing habitat, food and hunting pressure. We offer programs with technical guidance along with the Natural Resource and Soil Conservation, USFWS and Ducks Unlimited.”

Mississippi will likely present waterfowl stamp project requests and figures at the October commission meeting. MDWFP Commissioners will consider the projects for funding then, Havens said.