We flew most of the waterfowl survey on Tuesday January 5th and finished up the last of the upper Illinois River on January 8th. Fog and low ceilings plagued us this week above Peoria. Most of the ducks are now gone except for a few mallards, common goldeneyes, and common mergansers. A raft of Canvasbacks is hanging on near Nauvoo, Illinois. I never did see the large numbers of Canvasbacks this fall on Pool 19. I think they may have overflown us during the Christmas Holiday. This was my last flight of the 2020 fall migration. We will start flying again in mid-February, or when the ice starts to break up.
Good Luck to the goose hunters and the southern duck hunters!
We flew the waterfowl survey on Tuesday, December 22nd. Coincidentally, this flight was on the last day of Illinois’ central zone duck season. We had noticeable ice on several of the refuges, especially on the northern reaches of both the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. Duck numbers along the Illinois River (249,625) were similar to the previous week and still remained well above average for late December.
The central Mississippi River was a different story. Duck numbers dropped (~50%) along the lower Mississippi River from Quincy to Grafton; however, there were still nearly 300,000 ducks along the river this week. We just didn’t see the large concentrations of ducks at Swan Lake (Two Rivers NWR), Long Lake, Cuivre, Batchtown SFWA, Towhead, Delair NWR, or Ted Shanks CA. We are not sure where the ducks went, but they weren’t in their usually spots on the refuges. With the frigid weather arriving over the Christmas holiday, I suspect there will be fewer birds next week.
I forgot to grab my camera yesterday, so I had to use a couple of photos from past flights. We should normally be frozen solid by now, so I grabbed this photo of ducks sitting in the Cuivre Refuge back in December 2005. They were packed as tight as I have ever seen ducks congregate. The second photo is a straight down shot of ducks at Henderson County Conservation Area, near Oquawka, IL in January 2015. Enjoy!
We made it back into the air on Tuesday, December 15th following a couple of nights with temperatures in the low 20’s. Consequently, ice returned to many areas along both rivers. Total duck numbers remained 50% and 43% above average along the Illinois (240,805 ducks) and central Mississippi rivers (554,885 ducks). Mallards were the dominant species encountered and represented 74% of the total ducks along the Illinois River and 60% of total ducks on the Mississippi River. Northern pintail, green-winged teal, and ring-necked ducks were still plentiful in many locations. The North Zone duck season in Illinois was closing as we were conducting the survey, and the Central Zone season will close on December 22nd. Despite the ample number of ducks, ice and poor hunting success have prompted many duck hunters in the northern half of the state to pack it in for the year. Many reports suggest it was a poor duck season at best along both rivers. Maybe goose hunters will have better luck as we head into the frozen winter season.
We witnessed a spectacular sight at Ted Shanks Conservation Area in Missouri on Tuesday. As we viewed this flock of mallards and northern pintail, a young bald eagle decided to buzz the flock. Eagles often fly low over flocks of waterfowl looking for sick or injured birds to prey upon. This eagle parted the flock of ducks much like Moses parted the Red Sea back in Biblical times (Exodus 14). Fortunately for the ducks, the eagle failed to snatch a bird.
We started the waterfowl survey on Tuesday the 8th, but the weather deteriorated quickly and we had to abandon the flight. We were successful in completing the entire flight on Thursday, December 10th. The ice we witnessed last week was all but gone, and the good news is we still have a few ducks around. We counted 241,875 ducks along the Illinois River and >60% of those birds were mallards. Likewise, we estimated 414,560 ducks along the central Mississippi River this week with about 41% of those being mallards. Surprisingly, we still have very strong numbers of northern pintail, green-winged teal, gadwall, northern shoveler, and canvasbacks around.
The bad news is we lost about half of our ducks compared to the December 2nd survey or roughly down 43% along the Illinois River and 50% along the central Mississippi River. I am sure some of the duck decline was due to birds moving back out on the landscape as the wetlands thawed and the ice diminished, but I believe some of those birds ended up in southeastern Missouri and western Tennessee. A couple of hunters have told me the ducks departed central Illinois on Saturday and Sunday evenings shortly after sunset. And I have heard from a couple of hunters that shot limits of ducks in western Tennessee over the last couple of days.
Our duck seasons are drawing to a close up here in northern and central Illinois. The north zone goes out on Tuesday, December 15th, while the central zone ends on Tuesday, December 22nd. Get out there and enjoy the remaining days of the season! Maybe the coming rain and snow on December 11-12 will bring in a few new migrants to end our seasons on a high note. Time will tell.
We waited until Wednesday of this week (December 2nd) to fly the waterfowl survey. The weather looked good so we decided to see what the cold snap would do to duck numbers. I feared most of the ducks would get out of here with the 20ºF low temps on Monday and Tuesday. Boy was I wrong! We had lots of ice on Wednesday morning, but the ducks stayed. In fact, we saw more ducks than before Thanksgiving along both rivers. I am sure we had some new ducks arrive with the cold weather and north winds, as evidenced by the increasing number of mallards and common goldeneye (commonly known as whistlers or ice ducks). And we had some other divers (primarily lesser scaup) take off for warmer climates. The departure of scaup was also apparent in our band return data from ducks that we leg band during spring around Havana, IL and Pool 19 of the Mississippi River. Our weekly band return report from the Bird Banding Lab indicated the lesser scaup are definitely in Louisiana and Texas with several bands being reported from the deep south.
This week we observed ~423,000 ducks along the Illinois River and ~830,000 ducks on the central Mississippi River. These numbers are well above average for the first week of December and 7% greater than last week along the Illinois River and 25% more than last week on the central Mississippi. Once again mallards were the most numerous species with almost a half a million mallards along the central Mississippi River and well over a quarter million on the Illinois River. I know many duck hunters in Illinois are going to doubt those numbers because hunting success has been poor for the most part, but we took several photos to show how they hunkered down and kept pockets of water from freezing in the cool temps. I guess we will see next week when we warm up and thaw if the ducks continued to stick around.
Well Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! We completed the survey on Monday, November 23rd. Duck numbers on the Illinois River dropped slightly (7%) from the November 17th count. We estimated ~397,000 ducks this week, which is still 37% above average for Thanksgiving. Most noteworthy were the number of greater white-fronted geese at Chautauqua NWR (10,000) and the impressive numbers of trumpeter and tundra swans (~2,500) along the rivers. If you have never seen these massive birds, search the corn fields around Havana and Pleasant Hill, Illinois to find them.
We estimated ~665,000 ducks along the central Mississippi River, which was >50% above average and 13% up from last week. Mallards jumped to just under 300,000 birds after the central zone of the Missouri duck season reopened (increased 26% from last week). Clarence Cannon (100,000 ducks) and Swan Lake (86,000 ducks) refuges are rivaling for the most ducks on the central Mississippi River. Diving duck numbers on Pool 19 increased as more canvasbacks and common goldeneye arrived. I had about 18,000 more canvasbacks and 4,000 more goldeneye this week than last.
We were fooled by a diving duck hunter on Pool 19. From about ¼ mile away, we saw the ripples of a few “ducks” on the water. I asked Mike to take us to see what species they were. As we approached, a gunner from a layout boat opened the doors and started waving “Hello” to us. He was a good sport as I snapped a couple of photos of him. To quote Robert W. Service: “He wore a smile you could see a mile,” or at least 50 yards for us in the airplane. Layout boats are low profile boats used by diving duck hunters on big water. Their use became common back in the 1930’s after sink boxes were banned for hunting ducks.
Once again, HAPPY THANKSGIVING and enjoy the 4-day weekend!
We had a great day for the waterfowl survey on Tuesday, November 17th. The winds weren’t excessive, and we even had some cloud cover part of the day. I prefer to fly with some cloud cover because the direct sunshine and the sun’s reflection off the water aren’t blinding me on overcast days.
I know this is starting to sound like a broken record, but we really do have a lot of ducks around for mid-November. Illinois River duck numbers (427,525 total ducks) were 48% above average and up slightly (11%) from last week. The same goes for the central Mississippi River with 589,460 total ducks, which were up 36% from average and up 32% from last week.
It seems the ducks are switching refuges as more water is becoming available on the landscape. For instance, Chautauqua NWR has been slowly adding water, and the ducks have found it. I estimated over 100,000 ducks on the South Pool of Chautauqua this week and white-fronted geese were abundant was well. This contrasts with Emiquon, which usually holds a big slug of birds. Emiquon Preserve was partially dewatered this year to reset the marsh cycle; as a consequence, most of the moist-soil vegetation out there is high and dry. I only counted 1,300 ducks on the “Big E” on Tuesday. The big winner for the upper Illinois this week was Douglas Lake with over 70,000 ducks. Most of those birds were on the eastern side of Douglas Lake, which is what I call the Rice Pond refuge.
On the lower Mississippi River, the Cannon refuge keeps making headway with new water and duck numbers jumped to over 62,000. The Shanks refuge operated by Missouri Department of Conservation had over 66,000 ducks on Tuesday morning, with a healthy mob of green-winged teal (14,500) concentrating on the lower end of the refuge. And of course, Swan Lake at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers was still hovering around 100,000 ducks. I have witnessed hunters posting pictures of diving ducks around the internet over last week. We indeed had an influx of lesser scaup (34,000 which doubled last week’s count) on Pool 19, and even a few common goldeneye made their way into the central Mississippi River.
I know the general public has been enjoying Illinois’ mild weather over the last couple of weeks, but the waterfowl hunters are needing a change. Right now, it is taking some big winds to get the ducks to move around a little. Otherwise, it is stagnant out there in the duck blind. Here’s to the HOPE of blustery weather to come!
Good luck to Illinois deer hunters as they embark on the first half of shotgun deer season, hopefully everyone will stay safe!
We had to tweak the waterfowl survey a bit this week because my pilot, Mike Cruce, had prior commitments later in the week. In addition, we also had to avoid the rain event moving through the Upper Midwest on Tuesday, and the excessive winds gusting to 26+ mph on Sunday and Monday afternoons. Due to all the above distractions, we surprised many Illinois River duck hunters on Sunday morning (November 8th), and our earlier than normal arrival on Monday morning (November 9th) spurred the curiosity of the Mississippi River hunters.
Total duck numbers (386,060) along the Illinois River really didn’t change much (up 4%) from the November 3rd survey; however, the ducks did shift around to different refuges. The South Pool of Chautauqua NWR has a little more water on it this week and the ducks, especially green-winged teal, have found it. Also, it appeared the ring-necked ducks that usually reside on the Barkhausen Unit of the Cuba Island complex at Sanganois SFWA moved about 8 miles north to Jack Lake on Grand Island, where I estimated 25,000 ring-necks, commonly referred to as “blackjacks”.
The central Mississippi River numbers (447,430) this week jumped about 80,000 ducks when compared with the November 3rd estimate. This was a 22% increase from last week and was 39% above average for the second week of November. I don’t really think there was a major migration event between the surveys, but a reflection of the hunting pressure as Missouri’s north and central zone duck seasons opened on Saturday, November 7th. All those ducks that were loafing on the private duck clubs were forced into the refuges to avoid the hunting pressure.
I was unable to get a decent photo of ducks for my blog this week. Sorry about that – excessive winds made for a turbulent flight. Winds gusting above 25 mph are NOT conducive to waterfowl surveys.
Good luck to you hunters, and hopefully everyone will stay safe!
We got up early this week and flew the survey on November 3rd. Duck numbers were pretty good and totaled right at or slightly above the 10-yr average. This week we had over 361,000 ducks in the Illinois River Valley, and almost 368,000 along the central Mississippi River. Several times this week as I was figuring out the species composition I thought, it’s the whole gamut of ducks. Literally, there was a little bit of everything, except for the ice ducks (mergansers and common goldeneye), of course. Mallards (127,715) along the Illinois River were 17% above average, and we estimated 124,025 mallards (93% above average) along the central Mississippi.
We had a good start to the central zone duck opener on October 24th. I am pretty sure we had new ducks arrive on October 26th, and another small bunch of migrants arrived on October 29th and maybe some on November 1st. However, we have officially hit the duck hunting doldrums of early November. Everyone is complaining that duck hunting is SLOW at best. The weather pattern is giving us bluebird days with high temperatures in the mid 70’s and low temps well above average. That’s not what you want to hear as a waterfowler. I haven’t even considered going to the blind all week due to the weather. On the brighter side, the climatologists are predicting a change around Veteran’s Day – we can only hope they’re correct!
The other factor hurting central Illinois right now is the drought. While the southern states have been plagued with hurricanes and substantial rainfall, we can’t “buy” a drop of water up here. The drought naturally dewatered many seasonal wetlands this summer and made abundant food resources for ducks. However, many of refuges are struggling to get water back on the duck food. And, those areas without water control and pumps are high and dry.
Missouri’s north and central zone duck seasons open on Saturday, November 7th. Good luck to you hunters, and hopefully everyone will stay safe!
We completed the aerial waterfowl inventory of both rivers on Wednesday, October 28th. It seems like it has been a while since the weather has cooperated with us. I need to send out a Big Thanks again this week to Josh Osborn for taking my seat in the airplane. Today is my last day in Covid-19 quarantine, so hopefully, I will be back in the air next week. Josh estimated over 271,000 ducks in the Illinois River Valley (IRV). This estimate is about 3% below the 10-yr average, but up 32% from last week. We lost some of the early season migrants, like northern pintail and northern shoveler, but picked up some mallards, which were 26% above average and nearly double what we had last week in the IRV. The central Mississippi River Valley (CMRV) had over 252,000 ducks about 35% above average for the last week of October. It was hard to make comparisons between weeks because we missed the lower portion of the CMRV due to low clouds last week. However, I think we had a push of new birds into the central Mississippi River because a few diving ducks trickled in on Pool 19 and Port Louisa and Henderson Creek duck numbers jumped substantially. I have heard many reports of quality duck hunting over the past week, including Granite City, Nutwood, Pleasant Hill, Beardstown, Havana, Manito, Chillicothe, and Hennepin. Let’s hope the trend continues!
I decided to post some graphs representing the weekly averages (2010–2019) of duck species along the two rivers. The averages are one way to gauge how the migration is progressing each week. By looking at the graphs, one can see how migration chronology varies by species. Several species, like pintail and gadwall, have reached their peak numbers in central Illinois by early November; however, the coveted mallards and canvasbacks peak much later and maintain those numbers for multiple weeks during fall. If you are chasing pintails, you better get after them because by Thanksgiving many will be gone.