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Hunters head into opener with numbers soaring in the flyway

A drake wood duck sits on the water. Wood ducks are a popular early-season duck for hunters to harvest in the area. (Thinkstock)

Wet springs are bad for pheasants but can be great for waterfowl, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2014 report on the duck breeding populations indicated that this year.

That could be good news for hunters who will kick off their season on Saturday for the Minnesota waterfowl opener. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated the breeding duck numbers based on surveys conducted in May and early June. Total populations were estimated at 49.2 million breeding ducks in the surveyed area.

This estimate represents an 8-percent increase from last year’s estimate of 45.6 million birds and is 43 percent higher than the 1955-2013 long-term average. This continues a three-year trend of exceptional water conditions and population numbers for many species.

“It looks like another good waterfowl breeding year for a good portion of the prairies and the boreal forest,” said Ducks Unlimited (DU) CEO Dale Hall in a release. “Precipitation in the form of snow and rain has provided sufficient water to fill important wetlands in key breeding habitats. We hope this will result in good production and another great flight of birds migrating in the fall.”

That could mean good things for hunters across Minnesota who are heading out to the blind for the first time this season on Saturday.

“This might be a pretty good year to hunt ducks,” said Glenwood DNR wildlife manager Kevin Kotts. “I’m relying a lot on my field staff but people are seeing birds and when I was out doing roadside counts, when we drove by wetlands most the time I was seeing a number of broods out there.”

The main determining factor for duck breeding success is wetland and upland habitat conditions in the key breeding landscapes of the prairies and the boreal forest. Conditions observed across the U.S. and Canadian survey areas during the 2014 breeding population survey were improved or similar to last year.

Total pond counts for the U.S. and Canada combined showed 7.2 million ponds, which is similar to the 2013 estimate and 40 percent above the long-term average.

“Reports from DU biologists indicate a strong breeding effort across the prairies,” said DU chief conservation officer Paul Schmidt. “This is despite late winter conditions that delayed nesting activity in some areas by one to two weeks.

“We need more moisture in the Western Boreal Forest and in parts of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, and higher-than-usual water levels have posed some challenges for nesters in the Eastern Region. But overall this is a good breeding season, and depending on local conditions hunters across North America should look forward to another strong fall flight.”

That could mean good things for hunters heading out to the Dakotas and other waterfowl hotspots this season, but it can also mean better numbers locally.

“It seems like there’s at least a fair correlation with what we see locally to what the continental flyway populations are,” Kotts said.

Kotts mentioned the western side of Stevens and Grant Counties as areas that typically have the water and the habitat to lure plenty of waterfowl. The western portion of Douglas County is also an area that often holds birds.

“That’s traditionally been fairly good diver duck hunting,” Kotts said. “There’s a little deeper wetlands and we get some divers through there.”

Early on, hunters will likely find local mallards, teal and wood ducks being the most abundant species there for the taking. As the fall moves on, the hope is that some of the millions of ducks in the flyway this year will touch down to refuel on their way to their wintering grounds.

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