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Print

Ducks made good use of the Illinois River Valley this fall

January 25, 2013 at 10:34 AM

The State Journal-Register

Duck use of the Illinois River Valley trended upward this fall with aerial survey figures coming in above the 10-year average.

Waterfowl scientists with the Illinois Natural History Survey’s Forbes Biological Station near Havana say record duck numbers on the breeding grounds, ideal habitat conditions in the Illinois River Valley and mild weather combined for successful fall migration.

“We were ahead of the 10-year average for a long period of time this fall,” said Aaron Yetter, the INHS scientist who flies the survey.

Yetter flew over 23 sites on the Illinois River and 16 sites on the central Mississippi River nearly every week this fall from Sept. 8 to Jan. 8.

Since 1948, INHS scientists have flown over the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers looking at specific sites and counting the number of ducks and geese present. It is the longest dataset of its kind in the country.

This fall the news was positive.

More than 600,000 ducks were counted in the Illinois River Valley on Dec. 12, nearly five times more than the average for the same time period. Favorable weather conditions that lasted through December allowed those visiting ducks to stay.

“The numbers are trending back up over the last few years,” said Heath Hagy, director of the INHS Forbes Biological Station. “The late ’90s were incredible duck abundance years and we are trending back in that direction.”

Looking to the future

Where those numbers go next depends on a lot of factors.

“Depending on what happens with the (habitat conditions on the breeding grounds) next year, the breeding population and how many more miles of (drainage) tile go into the Dakotas throughout the spring — those factors will probably determine whether we stay at this level or drop next year,” Hagy said.

Persistent drought conditions could mean fewer small wetlands in the Prairie Pothole region of the north-central United States where most ducks breed.

Also, high commodity prices are putting pressure on land set aside for wildlife habitat. Land coming out of conservation programs at the end of its contract period could be converted to growing crops.

Illinois duck hunters, biologists and land managers can’t control all those things, but they can use survey data to help guide decisions about the factors they can influence.

Information gleaned from the aerial surveys can help land managers assess how well they are providing habitat for migrating birds, assist biologists in setting season dates and limits — especially for species that might be hunted for only part of the season — and give hunters some numbers to chew on.

In recent years, the survey data has been posted online at http://www.bellrose.org.

“I think there a fair number of hunters access the website,” Hagy said. “Hunters are always asking, what is Aaron seeing?”

Yetter said large numbers of ducks don’t always translate directly to good hunting.

“Whether a site was managed or not, there was a smorgasbord of food everywhere this fall,” he said. “I think that is one of the reasons hunters had a hard time early on.

“There was food everywhere and they didn’t have to go to the duck clubs to eat.”

Like jellybeans in a Mason jar

Like counting jellybeans in a Mason jar, counting ducks from the air seems like an impossible task.

But those scientists who take on the job say they develop a formula for coming up with the most accurate counts possible.

“You count 100 or you count 1,000 and you get an idea of how big an area that is,” said Aaron Yetter, waterfowl scientist with the Illinois Natural History Survey.

Yetter has conducted the counts since 2005.

Once a number of ducks is determined for a particular area, the figure is extrapolated to the total size of the site where ducks are present.

Yetter may be multiplying by some pretty big numbers.

“Sometimes you are counting by 5,000 or by 10,000,” he said.

Colleague Michelle Horath flew the surveys from 1990 to 2004.

Both Yetter and Horath say they are not trying to count every duck. The survey only covers certain sites and cannot take into account birds feeding in harvested fields.

Yetter said he asks the pilot to make multiple passes so he can count overall numbers.

The last pass is low, and that causes the ducks to fly up so they can be identified once Yetter can see their wings. Then he estimates percentages of each species.

“After awhile you eye starts to pick up cues,” Horath, said. “You start to detect things, and you know whether it is a ring-neck or a mallard.”

Habitat also is an indicator of what species might be present.

“And the habitat where they are sitting in narrows it down for you pretty quickly,” she said.

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528.

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