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Ducks crowd into Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Chris Young.

Ducks flock to Chautauqua this fall

November 14, 2013 at 10:00 PM

The State Journal-Register

The Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge near Havana hosted nearly 250,000 ducks last week, the most birds to use the refuge during fall migration in 20 years.

Overall, the Illinois River Valley is seeing an influx of ducks well above the 10-year average.

On Nov. 8, Illinois Natural History Survey waterfowl scientist Aaron Yetter counted 876,255 ducks at 23 locations up and down the Illinois River during his weekly aerial survey.

Chautauqua held 246,150 of those ducks.

The most recent count completed Thursday, showed some ducks had moved on, but the Illinois River aerial count still tallied 595,065 ducks with 167,305 of those at Chautauqua.

“We’ve probably had more pintails here than ever,” said refuge manager Bob Barry. “Now the mallards are really starting to pile in.”

Ducks were so crowded into some parts of the refuge that Barry said the green heads of mallards look like an island of vegetation from a distance.

“It is impressive to see the birds get up out there,” Barry said.

The refuge also has attracted bald eagles, red-tailed hawks and northern harrier hawks looking to take advantage of any injured ducks that can’t fly.
Eagles patrol back and forth, startling the ducks into flight.

Ducky weather

This year’s numbers can be attributed to weather conditions that allowed wetland vegetation to sprout and grow.

Last April’s record flooding caused concern that water would remain high too long for wetland plants like Walter’s millet to mature and set seed before frost.

“We were concerned that we were not going to get the vegetation to the point of maturity, but the furlough saw to that,” Barry said of the 16-day federal government shutdown in October. “We came back and looked, and the vegetation had really matured during that three weeks so we started putting water out there so the birds could use it.”

Refuge personnel are allowing the water to fill the South Pool slowly to allow ducks to exploit food in one area before flooding another.

“There’s actually a lot of water there, but it’s not high enough yet to start pulling the vegetation down,” Barry said of some portions of the refuge that appear to be covered in vegetation.

“The millet is really tall,” he said. “The water is low in there and you are seeing mostly the millet. As that starts to degrade you will start to see the water.”

Barring a spring flood, Chautauqua should have plenty of food for birds making the return trip in February and March.

“There are huge areas of good food in areas not flooded yet,” Barry said. “This is going to be our late season food and whatever is left over will be there for spring.”

Near record numbers of ducks on the breeding grounds in the north-central United States and the central Canadian provinces last spring combined with good habitat locally this fall helped fuel the influx of birds.

Couple that with a fall blizzard in the Great Plains, and central Illinois turned out to be this year’s preferred migration stopover destination.
The last time a quarter million ducks stopped over at Chautauqua was in 1994.

“When we get into duck-use days, then it gets really interesting,” said biologist Jake Randa. “I just did a little back of the napkin math and we’re already at 4 million duck use days.

Duck use days take into account overall numbers and, but also factor in how long the ducks stay. It is an indicator of habitat quality and the amount of food produced for waterfowl.

“Five million duck use days is kind of the tipping point where we are getting back to the 1960s and earlier,” he said. “We’re sitting pretty this year.”

Chris Young can be reached at 341-8487 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow him at

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