Morgan City hunter Ricky Guidry with a drake pintail he harvested last year. (Submitted Photo/John K. Flores)
Climate will impact waterfowl migration again this year
Say “climate-change” three times as fast as you can and see what happens. Climate-change. Climate-change. Climate change. Did it upset you? Did it ruffle your southern conservative feathers? Did you become a believer?
Seriously, if you don’t think an ever-changing climate impacts the propagation and subsequently the annual waterfowl migration, then I’d venture to say, you haven’t been a duck hunter for very long.
I made my first waterfowl hunt when I moved into the state in 1984. I was from Michigan and not used to 80-degree Christmas Days. Honestly, I’m still not but have come to know that if you just wait long enough, things tend to change.
I profusely complained to my wife that first year. It seemed a sacrilege to be wearing a T-shirt and shorts on the day you were supposed to be celebrating Jesus’ birthday.
To rub salt into the wound, when hearing my lamentations, my father-in-law would tell me stories how growing up trapping muskrats, sometimes the bayou would freeze over when down at the camp. Even my wife would tell me how as a little girl she and her brother would break icicles off the house.
Five years later, Christmas week of 1989 was one of the coldest on record with temperatures in the low teens and single digits for several consecutive days recorded around the state. Yes, that year some of the bayous and canals I frequented around Burns Point froze over with thin sheets of ice. What’s more, you’d of thought every duck in the Mississippi Flyway was located right here in St. Mary Parish, where I hunted.
Off and on, there were cold winters throughout the ’90s and some in the 2000s. There were also years with three-duck limits during the early ’90s. That’s how bad things had gotten with climate change where drought had hit the duck factory in the upper Midwest and Canada in a bad way.
The annual U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Surveys back then were pretty bleak that left many wondering if ducks would ever rebound.
Well, since 1995, there have been 24 straight duck seasons where hunters have had six-duck “liberal” daily bag limits.
However, last season, if you would have asked most hunters how their duck season was, once you got past the cuss words, you’d have heard things like, “Worst ever!” “What ducks!” And, “The ducks never came down!”
You also might have heard the conspiracy theorists clamor how Ducks Unlimited and hunting clubs in Missouri and Illinois are planting and flooding corn up North and therefore, short stopping the ducks during the migration.
That’s not to say some upper Midwest hunters don’t hunt such conditions — there is some evidence that indicates some northern clubs do. Just like hunters in Arkansas and Louisiana hunt pit blinds along harvested rice field levees that have been flooded. What hunters have trouble with is the impact of weather on the waterfowl migration.
Last year’s Breeding Population and Habitat Survey indicated there was 41.19 million ducks counted. And though down ever so slightly from 2017, ducks were still 10 percent above the long-term average.
Last year’s November, December and January aerial surveys conducted in Louisiana were some of the lowest on record.
With duck numbers 10 percent above the long-term average, why didn’t they show up to our coastal marshes? Climate had a lot to do with it. The entire Mississippi Flyway was one of the wettest on recorded. And, when you combine wet conditions with warm temperatures, or put another way, have situations where there is plenty of open water, food resources and mild temperatures, why should ducks migrate?
Ducks are obligate species. They rely on those agricultural and wetland resources to put on fat required to migrate and reproduce.
The January 2018 aerial survey revealed 2.05 million ducks as being estimated in the state, which was 33 percent below the previous January (2017) and 31 percent below the long-term average for Louisiana.
Two weeks ago, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service released this year’s Breeding Population and Habitat Survey. The 2019 total duck numbers declined by 6 % from 2018.
With 38.9 million ducks recorded and wet conditions in the country’s prairie pot hole region, you’d think everything is wonderful up on the breeding ground. But, though the U.S. upper Midwest had above average moisture conditions in the eastern Dakotas, Canada’s climate was much drier and therefore, will impact this year’s fall flight.
Everything where ducks are concerned isn’t only an ever-changing climate. Right here in coastal Louisiana there is urbanization. There are changes in agriculture, where sugarcane is being planted further and further west towards Texas, and colder resistant strains are being studied in order to grow it further north in Louisiana.
Other things that impact Louisiana duck numbers are coastal erosion, hurricanes and hunting pressure.
The September teal season gets begins in a little over a week on the 14th of the month. Teal breeding population numbers declined by 16 % from 6.45 million to 5.43 million but still remain 6 % above their long-term average.
I’ve gotten reports of birds showing up in southwest Louisiana, Forked Island and the Atchafalaya Delta. Will they be here in large numbers? Last year, the blue-winged teal numbers from the September aerial survey were the lowest recorded on record.
I’m not convinced yet that “all” climate change is manmade, but I am convinced that climate conditions impact waterfowl migrations. I’ve lived and hunted ducks in Louisiana for 36 years. I’ve hunted ducks in short sleeves and winter gear. I’ve sweated and I’ve shivered.
One thing I know: No matter what the climate, I’ll be hunting waterfowl again this fall and winter…
EDITOR’S NOTE: Flores is The Daily Review’s Outdoor Writer.