It is a long time until November, but duck hunters have good reason to make sure their guns are cleaned, calls are tuned and decoys will still float.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week announced the 2014 duck breeding population numbers and they are again up.
This year by about 8 percent.
The surveys are done in May and early June to determine how many ducks have made it back to the breeding grounds of the northern U.S. and Canada.
This year’s count, a new record, of approximately 49.2 million birds is up from last year’s 45.6 million, and more importantly 43 percent higher than the long-term average.
It is the third consecutive year that pond and duck numbers have been up.
This early good news should translate to higher duck numbers come fall and winter if conditions are right.
It should also mean that hunters will again be under liberal season lengths and bag limits. The season framework will not be set on the federal level until for a few days, but anticipating liberal dates the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is proposing a North Zone season of Nov. 1-Dec. 7 and Dec. 20-Jan. 25, 2015 and a South Zone season of Nov. 1-30 and Dec. 13-Jan. 25, 2015.
In the High Plains Mallard Management Unit the season has been proposed Oct. 25-26 and Oct. 31-Jan. 25, 2015.
It was an unusual count with numbers up, but with mostly marginal increases across the board. Among individual species, mallard numbers remained steady with last year at just under 11 million birds, but stay 42 percent above the long-term average.
Gadwalls also stayed steady at about 3.8 million, but that is 102 percent above the long-term average.
Also flat from 2013 but up long-term were green-winged teal at 3.4 million, blue-winged teal at 8.5 million and pintails at 3.2 million.
Only widgeons showed a sizeable increase with the surveys indicating about 3.1 million birds, or 18 percent above 2013 and 20 percent above the long-term average.
Of course East Texas hunters know that good duck numbers don’t always translate into great duck hunting and for the simplest of reasons, a lack of food.
“I don’t think it is as much related to mild winters as a significant lack of foods available on the landscape in Northeast Texas compared to other parts of the country,” said Kevin Kraai, TPWD’s waterfowl program leader, of the birds short-stopping to the north in recent year. “We do not have abundant waste grain on the landscape and our ducks have to rely on the waters in which they swim to forage, and those waters continue to be impacted by poor rainfall throughout the years.”
In comparison to the pasture and timber lands in the lower portion of Northeast Texas, hunters going north into Oklahoma and Arkansas have found ponds and lakes located near farmland teeming with ducks.
With a lack of farming, Kraai said Northeast Texas hunters needed flooded river bottoms to bring and hold ducks.
“We have not had a significant wide scale rain event in the winter during the hunting season to flood the very important river bottoms that make tremendous amounts of foods suddenly available for ducks,” Kraai explained.
Without food to entice the birds, the game has changed in recent years for Texas duck hunters.
“We have seen a 63 percent decline in mallards in Texas since 2007 that is being driven by the prolonged drought. Those that have good wetland units that can be managed sufficiently for quality moist-soil vegetation have been fairing much better the last couple years, but they too have been highly impacted by lack of water to conduct the appropriate management during the off season,” Kraai said.
Those managed wetlands have been good for species like pintail, gadwalls and widgeons. The mallards are simply short-stopping in farm states to the north, especially with increased emphasis in corn production for ethanol and more rice.
“Even during significant cold spells they move to nearby larger bodies of water that remain ice free longer and continue to forage on waist grain as long as they possibly can,” Kraai added.
While droughts have come and gone in Texas, the most recent one was notable because for the first time waterfowl biologists counted more ducks inland than along the Coast. However, with conditions improved, last winter bird counts went back up on the Coast while at the same time inland counts stayed higher than normal.
“Interestingly, we did not detect a decline in overall duck numbers in interior Texas, just more overall ducks in Texas,” Kraai said.
Other migratory bird seasons recently proposed by TPWD include dove: North and Central zones: Sept. 1–Oct. 20 and Dec. 19–Jan. 7, 2015 and South Zone: Sept. 19–Oct. 20 and Dec. 19–Jan. 25, 2015.
The Special White-Winged Dove Area season in South Texas is proposed for Sept. 6-7 and 13-14 and Sept. 19–Oct. 20 and Dec. 19–Jan. 21, 2015.
The proposed September teal season will run Sept. 13-28 if the feds approve a 16-day season or Sept. 20-28 if it is cut to nine days.
The Western Zone season for light and dark geese is proposed for Nov. 1-Feb. 1, 2015. The Eastern Zone season for light geese is proposed from Nov. 1-Jan. 25, 2015. The dark goose season for white-fronted geese is proposed for Nov. 1-Jan. 11, 2015 while the season for Canada geese is proposed for Nov. 1-Jan. 25, 2015.
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