By Ben Lewis
Waterfowl hunters throughout the Atlantic Flyway will recall the 2017–2018 season as one of the coldest in recent memory. As frigid temperatures pushed ducks down from the north, many Virginia hunters enjoyed favorable gunning conditions. Ultimately, many Virginia waterways ended up freezing as well, pushing ducks farther south in the flyway.
While we cannot predict the weather, reports from the breeding grounds provide an indication of waterfowl populations for the upcoming year. The forecasts below are based on reports of surveys conducted on the primary breeding areas of North America’s waterfowl. Official reports and data from both local and primary production area surveys can be found in the “Status of Waterfowl Fact Sheet,” updated annually on the Department’s website.
Duck Production Forecast
The Eastern survey area, which consists of Atlantic Canada, Ontario, and Quebec, is an important breeding area for ducks that winter in Virginia and the Atlantic Flyway. Conditions for waterfowl production in this area generally declined in 2018. The region experienced well below average temperatures in April that continued into May in some areas. This late thaw hindered some waterfowl breeding efforts.
Local Breeding Waterfowl
Although Virginia is primarily a waterfowl wintering area, several species (wood ducks, mallards, and Canada geese) also breed in Virginia. Each year a statewide breeding waterfowl plot survey is conducted by Department staff. This survey contributes to a larger survey throughout the Atlantic Flyway and provides flyway-wide pair and population estimates of waterfowl that breed in the lower 48 states. These estimates are also used to monitor trends in local populations and to set waterfowl hunting regulations. The survey consists of aerial and ground monitoring of 165 individual, one-square-kilometer plots, which are randomly selected in different physiographic zones of the state. The plots are surveyed during the months of April and May. All waterfowl on these plots are identified and counted, and their breeding status (paired, single, and flocked) is recorded.
Habitat conditions in Virginia during the spring of 2018 were generally good. Significant precipitation during the middle and latter portions of the breeding season filled wetlands and created good brood-rearing habitat, although flooding in certain areas may have caused some nest failure. Breeding pair estimates for black ducks and wood ducks were slightly lower in years past, while estimates for Canada geese were higher.
One notable trend from the Atlantic Flyway Breeding Waterfowl Plot Survey is the sustained decline in Eastern population mallards. The 2018 mallard population and breeding pair estimate in the Northeast regions was the second lowest on record after last year’s estimate. The continued decline will likely result in a reduced bag limit in the future.
During the 2017–2018 season, Virginia waterfowl hunters saw an increase in the black duck bag limit from one bird to two birds for the first time in 30 years. Several key developments led to this increase—primarily, decreases in hunter numbers in both Canada and the United States, better biological data which showed a stabilized population, and an improved population model that shows that harvest has a limited effect on population size.
Based on the Adaptive Harvest Management Strategy for Northern Pintails, the daily bag limit for pintails has been raised from one to two per day.
Despite the unknowns of weather and wildlife populations, the upcoming hunting season will certainly provide opportunities to get out and enjoy the diversity of waterfowl habitat that Virginia has to offer. So enjoy your hunting, be safe, and hopefully we will get to harvest a few birds along the way!
This update was submitted by statewide waterfowl biologist Ben Lewis, who works in the Charles City office.
This article originally appeared in Virginia Wildlife Magazine.
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