Illinois hunting and fishing

“Phenomenal” wetland conditions predicted for breeding ducks

March 12, 2011 at 10:01 PM

After a long, cold winter, John Devney is ready to see some ducks.

The senior vice-president of Delta Waterfowl in Bismark, N.D., says the sun finally warmed the tundra enough on Thursday that he could get outside for his first and only ice-fishing trip of the year.

“We’ve been 20-30 degrees below normal for the past 30-40 days,” Devney says. “After that you kind of long to be outside a little bit. It’s been wicked cold, but it’s starting to turn now.”

Devney is excited for other reasons, too.

The frozen ground coupled with ample snowfall and with warm temperatures on the way will help melting snow run off and into wetlands – instead of simply soaking into the ground.

That may be bad news for farmers or anyone living along rivers, but good news for ducks.

Delta Waterfowl is predicting that returning ducks will find near-perfect breeding conditions.

“When you have the kind of snow we have, when you have what we think is going to be a real rapid thaw, it should create pretty phenomenal wetland conditions.

“At least from a duck production perspective, fast thaws are welcome.”

For everything to work just right, snow has to melt before the ground thaws out, causing it to run off.

Devney calls it the frost seal or frost cap.

“In the fall if you have lots of moisture in the soil, and the soil is saturated and freezes that way, when the thaw starts the snow melts before the ground thaws,” he says. “The water will sheet off and run which will put it in to wetlands.

“Twenty inches of snow are great, but to really have good spring wetlands conditions you have to good soil moisture in the fall.”

Couple that with consistent snowfall across the prairie pothole region of the Northern United States and Canada, and Devney says the overall conditions should be excellent.

“Sioux falls to Edmonton is a huge landmass,” he says. “For snowfall to be consistently delivered over that whole landmass is pretty amazing.”

Breeding duck numbers continue to shift from Canada to the United States.

Devney says more ducks are settling on the prairies in the Dakotas and Montana because of more and better habitat available.

“It is primarily the result of the (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s) Conservation Reserve Program helping create generations of duck production here in the Dakotas,” he says.

Canada does not have a conservation program like CRP that provides rental payments to landowners who agree to idle marginally productive or erosion-prone land and plant wildlife cover.

Upland nesting cover is part of the equation for successful duck production.

Canada also is losing wetlands faster than the United States as they continue to be drained and converted to agriculture.

“That’s why you are getting this seismic redistribution of breeding ducks in the U.S. and Canada,” Devney says. “It’s very basic duck ecology 101. Ponds attract the ducks, and if you are losing ponds your ability to attract ducks is reduced.”

Budget pressures and high commodity prices that put conservation programs in jeopardy.

And that tempers the good news on the U.S. side of the border.

Devney says its time for people who care about ducks to pay attention.

“O.K. guys, this is interesting and it’s certainly groundbreaking, but we’ve got more breeding pintails in the U.S. than in Canada and nobody thought we would ever see that,” he says. “We need to retain the programs that have been responsible for that and a lot of them are at great risk right now.”

Illinois hunting and fishing

Mallards will re-nest after a failure if habitat conditions are favorable.

Switch on or off

Delta waterfowl says great wetland conditions promote breeding and duck production.

If conditions are right, a hen mallard will re-nest up to five times if a nest is destroyed or unsuccessful.

Poor conditions tend to have the opposite effect.

“They don’t just turn it off,” says John Devney, senior vice-president with Delta Waterfowl. “But when it’s dry the breeding effort is drastically reduced.”

Birds that don’t find ponds during dry years may continue north to the Boreal forests of Canada, but those areas are not as productive.

“It’s a place for a bird to go and camp out for the summer but you are not going to get much production.”


Illinois hunting and fishing

Lesser scaup

Oil spill aftermath

Devney says it looks like wintering ducks did very well on and off the Louisiana coast, calming or at least tempering fears that last year’s oil spill would be detrimental to migrating ducks.

“The real doomsday scenario was, ‘What if there was a big storm that would push the oil into the freshwater and brackish marshes?’” he says. “It is interesting at least in terms of direct duck mortality, that it was almost totally indistinguishable.

“Even more interesting is that birds there in extraordinary numbers,” he says. “There were lots of ducks jammed into those coastal marshes.”

Scaup that winter offshore seemed to fare well.

Still, the long-term effects won’t be known for some time.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to measure the long-term consequences of individual linkages in that ecosystem.”

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