November 1st aerial survey

Holy shmoly, we have a bunch of birds for the end of October! We flew the waterfowl survey on Halloween Day and estimated nearly 700,000 ducks on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. If you didn’t have a successful central zone duck season opener, I’m sorry because you should have.

We estimated 341,355 total ducks along the Illinois River which was 41% above the 10-yr average and 87% above last week. Duck abundance along the central Mississippi River was slightly greater at 354,070 ducks. This estimate was 123% above the 10-yr average. Mallards are starting to accumulate along both rivers; however, northern pintail, American green-winged teal, and gadwall are the reason for the big numbers. Northern pintail are early season migrants and usually skedaddle when the temperatures plummet. However, some pintail hold on until the bitter end when ice forces them out; especially in the confluence region of the Illinois and Mississippi. We even had some diving ducks arrive, as I saw rafts of lesser scaup, or bluebills, on the Illinois River and on Pool 19, Mississippi River.

This week I am focusing on all those gadwall observed on the waterfowl survey. Gadwall, or gray ducks, are considered herbivores and generally use areas with submersed aquatic vegetation on which they forage. Submersed aquatics are the plants growing under the water’s surface that gives you fits when you’re bass fishing in the summer time. Gadwall concentrate on wetlands with submersed vegetation; hence, their numbers are usually greater on Hennepin & Hopper lakes, Banner Marsh, and Emiquon. They also utilize wetlands with high-quality moist-soil vegetation where they can gather an abundance of moist-soil seeds. This is why there were over 38,000 on Swan Lake near Grafton, IL. Gadwall are easily identified by their “white windows” on their speculums (i.e., along the inner and lower portion of the wing). I hope you can see the white speculums of the gadwall in the attached photo. If you look hard, you might see some northern shoveler, northern pintail, and mallards in the photo. Good luck hunting and be careful out there!

Stay tuned for more updates next week…

October 27th aerial survey


We flew the second regular season waterfowl survey on Thursday October 26th. The flights were delayed from rainy weather earlier in the week. I’m sorry to say we weren’t able to get the Mississippi River flight in this week. Thursday’s winds were approaching 30 mph gusts by 11 a.m. and there was just no way to take that in the airplane. Winds were gusting to 28 mph all day long on Friday, keeping us out of the air.

If you haven’t heard, our airplane is having mechanical issues so we are renting an airplane from a man in Canton. The attached photos of us in Rueben’s airplane were from last week’s flight over Chautauqua NWR. Chris Young just happened to be visiting the refuge last week and snapped a couple of photos for us. We will likely be using this airplane for a couple more weeks until the Piper Arrow is ready to roll. Thanks Rueben!

We estimated 203,275 total ducks this week along the Illinois River. This estimate was 11% above the 10-yr average and 26% above last week’s numbers. The bulk of the birds were non-mallard dabblers including: northern pintail, blue-winged teal, American green-winged teal, gadwall, and northern shoveler; however, the mallards are slowly starting to arrive. There were even a few ring-necked ducks, ruddy ducks, and canvasbacks for you diver hunters.

I heard a report from the field that Emiquon lost some birds at sunset on October 26th. I can’t verify that on radar due to a squall line that passed through the Illinois River valley about sunset on Thursday. If we did lose a few birds, let’s hope it was just some American coots heading to warmer climates. The northwest winds today and a low of 19 degrees tonight in North Dakota might just bring a few new birds into Illinois just in time for the central zone opener. As you know, all of us duck hunters are eternally hopeful for whistling wings on a northwest wind! Take care and be careful out there!

Stay tuned for more updates next week…

September 21st aerial survey

We flew the third teal flight on Thursday, September 21st , despite the record breaking temperatures. Teal abundance (18,875) was similar to the previous week (18,420 teal) along the Illinois River valley (IRV) but was 34% below the 10-yr average. Specifically, blue-winged teal numbers dropped again and represented a mere 30% of the total teal numbers in the IRV. However, teal numbers (8,105) along the Mississippi River were up 41% from last week and 39% above the 10-yr average. Blue-winged teal represented 54% of the teal numbers along the central Mississippi River bordering Illinois. With the heat wave plaguing the Midwest over the past week, I would imagine teal hunting will be less than spectacular during the final weekend of teal season in Illinois. Good luck out there.

I have been holding off on my annual projection of waterfowl food for fall 2017 along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. The Illinois River was flooded until the first week of August and drastically delayed the germination of moist-soil vegetation; however, waterfowl habitats along the Mississippi River appear much better. Typical wetland drawdowns in Illinois during June and July will yield in excess of 1,200 lbs/acre of moist-soil seeds (duck food). Conversely, a late drawdown in mid-August will only yield 300-400 lbs/acre of duck groceries. Mother Nature has a way of stunting the natural plants to produce seeds before the typical frost date in early October. However, Japanese millet (a cultivated species) will grow to its normal height despite the shorter growing season and try to maximize its seed yield (1,200 lbs/acre). Japanese millet can reach maturity in as little as 50-60 days. Many duck clubs planted Japanese millet along the rivers around August 15th so there is a chance it can mature if we have a late frost. So here’s to hoping Mother Nature delays that first killing frost to mid-October in central Illinois.

redroot nutgrass
A seed head of redroot nutgrass when germination occurs in June or early July.
This photo of nutgrass displays what happens to natural vegetation when germination is delayed until the first week of August. The drastic reduction in seed head size produces much lower seed yields with the later drawdown.

Stay tuned for more updates next week…

September 14th aerial survey

We flew the second teal flight on Thursday after the fog lifted around 11a.m. Teal abundance actually dropped (5%) along the Illinois River compared to the previous week. We lost about ½ of our blue-winged teal from last week, but American green-winged teal numbers nearly doubled. I estimated 18,420 teal in the Illinois Valley from Hennepin to Meredosia; however, the total was 31% below average. There is some weather hitting the prairies this weekend, but I’m not sure the wind is right to bring in new birds.

A few ducks were using the central Mississippi River where I estimated 5,740 teal (5% below the 10-yr average). Some people I spoke with this week were speculating the blue-winged teal have already moved through, and this week’s count of bluewings was low along the Mississippi. Many areas of the Mississippi River from New Boston to Grafton were still dewatered to promote duck food plants, so there wasn’t an abundance of shallow water for the teal to muck around in.

I hope everyone remembers that the early Canada goose season closes on Friday, September 15th. Don’t forget that when the flocks of honkers start moving around this weekend!

Teal and American white pelicans
Teal loaf along the shoreline/mudflat while a few American white pelicans hope to find some stranded fish to feed upon.

Stay tuned for more updates next week…

December 22nd aerial survey

What a difference a week makes! We flew the waterfowl survey on Wednesday, December 21st, and the survey locations along both rivers were almost entirely frozen. As the saying goes, “the ol’ lady is singing”. Just as the Illinois Central Zone duck season closed, we lost 805,000 ducks compared with last week’s estimate of 1,148,990 birds. Despite the ice, we still had a few ducks holding on. The Illinois River had 127,625 total ducks which was 19% below average. Similarly, the Mississippi River had 215,970 ducks which was 32% below average. Mallards comprise the majority of the ducks still hanging around, along with some common mergansers and common goldeneyes. We also picked up a few Canada geese on the rivers where I counted 22,425 honkers on the Illinois River and 12,155 along the Mississippi. Now that duck season is over in central Illinois, it’s time to shift over and field hunt Canada geese.

This will be my last blog for the fall, and this week I chose a photo of the iced up Mississippi River. This view is looking north towards Nauvoo, Illinois from just above the dam at Hamilton and Keokuk. If you remember from last week, this section of the river held 160,000 canvasbacks. They have all departed now for warmer climates. The second photo shows a pocket of open water with some trumpeter swans, Canada geese, white-fronted geese, and mallards. Enjoy!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

December 14th aerial survey

We flew the waterfowl survey on Monday, December 12th , and many locations were nearly frozen. Despite the ice, we found substantial numbers of ducks holding on in small pockets of open water or in the windswept areas of big water. I have had many questions from the hunters about the arrival of migrating Canada geese, but my goose numbers along both rivers were insignificant and below average. I am sure our local geese are getting consolidated down to the big waters or power plant cooling lakes as we continue to freeze up.

Our estimate (289,215) of ducks along the Illinois River increased 32% this week and were 51% above average for mid-December. There was a big increase in divers along the upper Illinois River where found a couple of rafts of diving ducks that totaled 38,000 birds. Other increases along the river included mallards (186,855) which were up 17% from average and 36% above last week. Duck numbers along the central Mississippi River valley (CMRV) were busting at the seams. We estimated 859,775 total ducks along the CMRV which was 191% above average and a 24% increase from last week. Mallards were estimated at 482,325 birds which were 168% above average and 50% up from last week. A whopping 159,675 canvasbacks were counted on the Mississippi and most were in the vicinity of Nauvoo, IL on Pool 19. Canvasbacks were 272% above average and 99% up from the December 7th estimate. These staggering numbers from the CMRV represent the 10th highest count of total ducks and the 5th highest count of canvasbacks dating all the way back to 1948. I am sure Frank Bellrose would be doing cartwheels if he was still around to see these canvasbacks and mallards on the central Mississippi River!

I snapped a couple of nice photos this week, and if you remember from last week’s blog, I was trying to show what a mallard looked like from above. As you can see, the black stripe on the drake’s back can be very prominent from different aspects while the white sides dominate the bird from other views. Additionally, I got a nice photo of diving ducks. I hope you can see the red head and white body on the drake canvasbacks in contrast to the overall black appearance of the ring-necked ducks and the grayish tone of the lesser scaup (middle of photo).

Stay tuned for more updates next week…

December 8th aerial survey

We flew the waterfowl survey on Wednesday, December 7th, just as ice was forming from the arrival of the “Siberian Express” from the northwest. Extreme cold weather usually means mallards, and this front was no exception. Illinois River mallards were up 8% from last week, even though they were 17% below average. While mallards were up along the Illinois, we lost over 80,000 ducks in the IRV. The cold weather pushed out those non-mallard dabblers that have been hanging around for a month or so. As a result, total ducks along the Illinois were down 27% from last week and totaled 219,415 ducks. Something similar occurred along the Mississippi River when we lost some of those pintail, gadwall, and teal; however, mallards were up a whopping 100,000 birds. Mallards in the CMRV were up 45% from last week and 27% above average. We also found a huge raft of canvasbacks (77,200 ducks) south of Nauvoo along Pool 19. As we were flying up the Mississippi River from Nauvoo to New Boston, IL, we dodged countless numbers of diving ducks heading south, presumably to the southern reach of Pool 19 below Montrose, IA. All those diver hunters will be heading to their layout boats on Pool 19.

roosting ducks

I snapped this picture of mallards and other ducks roosting at Ted Shanks Conservation Area below Saverton, MO. Shanks has bountiful “duck grub” this year with an abundance of moist-soil vegetation, natural foods, and a few areas of row crop agriculture. If you can zoom in on the photo, you will see: mallards, gadwall, American wigeon, American green-winged teal, northern pintail, and northern shoveler. Duck hunters always ask me how their Battleship mallard decoys look from the air. This photo shows you what mallards look like from above. I guess you can be the judge!

Stay tuned for more updates next week…

December 2nd aerial survey

foraging ducks
The attached photo from November 29th depicts several thousand American green-winged teal and northern pintails foraging in some shallowly flooded moist-soil vegetation. In fact, you can see the muddy water where the birds were feeding at the water-vegetation interface. Enjoy!

We completed the waterfowl survey on Tuesday, November 29th following the arrival of new ducks into Illinois over Thanksgiving. Duck numbers (301,955) on the Illinois River were up 6% from last week and 38% above average for the last of November. Most of the increase was due to the arrival of some mallards which now stand at 127,915 birds; however, mallard numbers were below (24%) normal on the Illinois River. An even larger movement of mallards landed in the central Mississippi River region which were up 94% from last week and totaled 222,095 mallards. This mallard estimate was right at the 10-yr average. Total duck abundance for the Mississippi was 623,160; up 33% from last week and 50% above average for late November.

I was asked several times after the survey numbers were posted why hunter success was down. Specifically, one question was “How can duck hunting be slow if we have almost a million ducks between the two river systems”? I replied that our mallard numbers were currently average for the central Mississippi, but still 24% below average on the Illinois. We all know Mallards are “King” when it comes to duck hunting in Illinois, and mallards drive the harvest rate and duck hunter satisfaction in Illinois. So when mallard numbers are average or below, hunter success and satisfaction will be down. Further, I believe most of the other ducks have been here for at least a couple of weeks and many for about a month. The majority of the ducks have figured out where to avoid gunning pressure. Additionally, our mallards have started feeding late in the afternoon and into the night. I have heard multiple reports of mallards moving from refuges to the duck clubs at sunset to avoid hunting pressure. One of my colleagues joked that we have turned them into bats, forcing the ducks to feed at night to get a reprieve from the duck hunters. Hopefully, the weather system coming across the prairies this weekend (Dec. 2nd) will bring us more of those “prized” greenheads. Time will tell I guess.

Stay tuned for more updates next week…

November 23rd aerial survey

duck with a banded leg

A major weather system tracked across the Midwest over the weekend of November 18th , and many of us were expecting a big push of ducks. But from what many hunters witnessed in the duck blind, we only had a small movement of ducks into the Illinois River valley on Saturday morning, or the mallards arrived and left very quickly as gunning declined drastically by Monday morning. Indeed, Doppler radar indicated emigration events on both Saturday (November 19th) and Sunday (November 20th) evenings along the middle Illinois River. Darn the bad luck! These observations were corroborated by the waterfowl survey that was flown on Monday, November 21st. Duck abundance (283,585) on the Illinois River actually declined 15% from the previous week, and even mallard numbers were down 14% from what we counted on November 14th . Illinois River mallards (114,300) were 19% below average for the week of Thanksgiving. In contrast, many reports of new ducks were heard from the lower portion of the central Mississippi River. We estimated total ducks (468,735) increased 27% from the November 14th survey and were 40% above the 10-yr average along the Mississippi River. Mallards more than doubled along the central Mississippi where they were up 52% from last week. We even had a bunch of canvasbacks (27,500) show up on Pool 19. Other diving ducks observed on Pool 19 included common goldeneye and bufflehead. The difference between the two rivers can be attributed to the devastating flood that occurred in August along the Illinois River. That flood wiped out most of the duck food in the Illinois Valley, and it has been apparent in our duck numbers this fall. For some of us, it has been the worst duck season in recent memory.

With the arrival of some diving ducks this week, I decided to write about the Forbes Biological Station’s banding program. Have you ever wondered where ducks go when they leave central Illinois? My colleagues, Chris Hine and Heath Hagy, described the recovery locations of spring banded lesser scaup in a popular article printed last winter and I’ll borrow from them. Since 2012, we have banded >7,500 lesser scaup during spring migration at Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, Emiquon Preserve, and Anderson Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area. From these marked birds, we have had 164 recoveries (mostly hunter harvested birds) extending from the Northwest Territories to the Gulf of Mexico. Our spring banded lesser scaup were harvested in Louisiana (24%), Illinois (20%), North Dakota (7%), and several other states. The harvest distribution of these birds illustrated the need to manage our waterfowl populations at the flyway and continental scales. If you would like a copy of the lesser scaup article, visit the following link.

Stay tuned for more updates next week…

November 17th aerial survey

We completed the latest waterfowl survey on Monday, November 14th . The field reports of new migrants arriving on November 8-9 th were verified in this week’s numbers. We estimated 333,095 ducks in the Illinois River valley which was 15% above average and up 56% from the previous week. A big chunk of that increase was due to an influx of mallards in both the upper and lower Illinois River where mallards increased 196% from the previous week. Likewise, total ducks (368,455) along the central Mississippi River valley (CMRV) were up 44% from the previous week and 12% above average for the middle of November. Mallard numbers along the CMRV climbed 83% from the previous week, and a decent sized raft of lesser scaup (12,000) was found between Nauvoo and Fort Madison. With the weather pattern forming in the prairies, I expect the arrival of new ducks beginning on November 18th . However, the central Illinois forecast of northwest winds and low temperatures in the mid-20’s on Saturday will likely drive out many of those non-mallard dabblers that have been hanging around for several weeks now. I guess next week’s survey will verify that prediction.

This week I decided to write about our canine companions. Those retrievers that make our lives easier and more enjoyable come in many breeds including the Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever, Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Curly Coated Retriever, Flat Coated Retriever, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, and even the Standard Poodle, and Weimaraner can make good duck dogs. Don’t discount the mixed breeds either as I have a friend that used a Rottweiler-Boxer mix, and he was a fine dog. We all know that a good dog will find countless more birds in dense vegetation than his owner; however, my quick search of the literature didn’t reveal much information on the percentage of downed ducks that our dogs find for us. One study from northern Illinois suggested pheasant hunters without dogs lost about 22% of their downed birds, while hunters using dogs lost only 9% of their shot birds. Some studies indicated crippling losses in ducks was between 33-50%; however, an experienced hunter with a well-trained retriever reduced that number to <16%. My preference is the Labrador Retriever, specifically the yellow lab. I remember an old duck hunter from Springfield, IL, that liked to tell me I had an imitation “black dog” referring to the black labs. He was a Chesapeake fancier and gave high praise to his beloved Chessie. No matter what breed you prefer, a good dog is a pleasure to watch and hunt with. Here’s a toast to our dogs!

hunting dogs

Stay tuned for more updates next week…