Mild temperatures during the 2016–2017 waterfowl season frustrated many Virginia hunters, but waterfowlers should remain optimistic about seasons to come. While we cannot predict the weather, reports from the breeding grounds provide an indication of waterfowl populations for the coming 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 our website.
Duck Production Forecast
The map below shows reported breeding conditions throughout the entire traditional waterfowl breeding survey area. The Eastern survey area, which consists of Atlantic Canada, Ontario and Quebec, is an important breeding area for waterfowl that winter in Virginia and the Atlantic Flyway. The majority of this area received above average winter and spring precipitation, which created optimal spring brood-rearing habitat. Breeding conditions in this region have been reported as being good to excellent.
Local Breeding Waterfowl
Although Virginia serves primarily as a wintering area for waterfowl, several species (wood ducks, mallards, and Canada geese) also breed in Virginia. Each year a statewide breeding waterfowl plot survey is conducted by DGIF 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 in these plots are identified and counted and their breeding status (paired, single, and flocked) is recorded. Habitat conditions in Virginia during the spring of 2017 were generally fair to good. Dry wetland conditions during the early season were alleviated by significant precipitation during the middle and latter portions of the nesting period. Breeding pair estimates for wood ducks, mallards, and Canada geese in the state were slightly lower than years past.
One notable trend from the Atlantic Flyway Breeding Waterfowl Plot Survey is a continual decline in Eastern population mallards. The 2017 mallard population and breeding pair estimate was the lowest since the survey began in 1993. This persistent trend will likely result in a future reduced mallard bag limit.
Virginia waterfowl hunters will see two changes in species restrictions in the daily bag limit for the 2017–2018 season. While the limit on Northern pintails has been reduced to one bird per day, more notably, the bag limit for the American black duck has been increased from one bird to two birds per day. This is the first increase in the American black duck bag limit 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 revealed a stabilized population, and an improved population model showing that harvest has a limited effect on population size. More information about this increase can be found on the DGIF website.
Despite the unknowns of weather and duck 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 article was written by Ben Lewis, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF).