November 10 aerial survey

The weather was perfect for a waterfowl survey on Monday, November 7th. We estimated 213,465 total ducks in the Illinois River valley (IRV) which was up 7% from the previous week; however, do to above average temperatures across the Midwest, we are running well below average (41% low) for the second week of November. The central Mississippi River valley (CMRV; 253,375 ducks) is doing much better in relation to the 10-yr average (4% low), and duck abundance was up 28% from the previous week. However, this increase was likely due to the middle zone duck season opener in Missouri on November 5th . Ducks were dispersed around the duck clubs in St. Charles County prior to opening day and were forced into the refuges after the season started.

The current weather pattern is at least part of the problem with our duck numbers along both rivers. The species distribution usually starts to change by the second week of November when we shift from the non-mallard dabblers (northern pintail, gadwall, American wigeon, American green-winged teal, and northern shoveler) to mallards. In fact, our mallard numbers this week were 67% and 38% below average along the IRV and CMRV, respectively. In many years, Veteran’s Day weekend brings some gusty winds and colder temperatures, and this year’s forecast may bring some north winds and freezing lows. Some of you might even remember the Armistice Day blizzard on November 11, 1940. We could sure use some “ducky” weather, but we don’t need a repeat of 1940.

Since my flight, I have heard reports of new migrants along both rivers. Migrant mallards and some snow geese were noticed in the Louisiana, MO, area earlier in the week, and I am hearing more gunshots this morning from my office as I write this blog. Good luck hunting and enjoy the Veteran’s Day Holiday. To all the active duty military and veterans out there, Thank You for your service!

Stay tuned for more updates next week…

painting of a winter scene with ducks by David Hagerbaumer
This painting by David Hagerbaumer from Quincy, IL, depicts the blizzard and the duck hunting on that fateful day, November 11, 1940, when many duck hunters lost their lives. If you have never heard the story, you should “Google it”, or better yet, ask an elderly hunter to recount the memories from that day.

November 4th aerial survey

aerial overview of ducks

Gusty winds near 25 mph on Halloween morning delayed our weekly waterfowl flight until Tuesday, November 1st. Duck numbers were still climbing along the Illinois River valley (IRV; up 16% from last week) and central Mississippi River valley (CMRV; up 31% from last week). Duck abundance was “eerily” similar between the two rivers and seemed fitting for this week of Halloween. I estimated 198,825 ducks in the IRV which was 19% below the 10-yr average. Duck numbers along the CMRV were 21% above the 10-yr average where I estimated 197,980 birds. Sixty-six percent of the ducks along the Mississippi were located in the confluence region with the Illinois River near Grafton.

I think we had a couple different events happening in the last week. Reports from the field indicated some of the northern pintails may have departed the Havana area on Wednesday October 26th. This report coincided with a 14% reduction of pintails in the IRV and 42% reduction in pintails along the CMRV from last week. I also heard gunning picked up a little on Sunday, October 30th along the middle Illinois River and below Quincy on the Mississippi. This little spurt in hunting success may have been due to a flight of immigrants from the north. In fact, I noticed many more mallards, gadwall, and ring-necked ducks this week, and the first rafts of lesser scaup, or bluebills, were noted in the Nauvoo area of Pool 19. Our duck hunters are hoping for a break in this weather pattern soon so that more ducks from the prairies will arrive on a cold north wind.

I hope you enjoy this photo from Hennepin and Hopper lakes. We were cutting a hard-banked turn right on top of these birds so the shot is looking straight down from above. Note the northern pintails sitting in their normal systematic pattern on the mudflats. If you can zoom in on the photo, you will see Canada geese, American white pelican, American coot, northern shoveler, and the tiny brown ducks are American green-winged teal. Enjoy!

Stay tuned for more updates next week…

October 28th aerial survey

ducks in the air and on the water

The weather was right for a waterfowl survey of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers on Monday, October 24th, following the Central Zone duck season opener in Illinois. Duck numbers (171,990) were up 71% along the Illinois River from the previous week; however, I think the majority of this increase was attributed to the shuffle of ducks out of the private clubs and into the refuges due to hunting pressure. There were some new immigrants into the Illinois River valley as noted by the increase in ring-necked ducks; nevertheless, we were still 12% below the 10-yr average for the last week of October. On the central Mississippi River, I estimated 151,435 total ducks which was 10% above the 10-yr average, but only 7% up from the previous week. The Mississippi likely didn’t see the big increase in duck numbers with the Central Zone opener because duck hunting in Missouri doesn’t open until October 29th in the North Zone and November 5th in the Middle Zone; therefore, the ducks were still scattered in the private clubs along the lower Mississippi River above St. Louis, MO. Those white-fronted geese that showed up last week, must have continued their way south, because we only saw a handful of specks this week.

I hate to be a “Debbie Downer” but hunting reports from the field were poor for the Central Zone opener with a preponderance of dismal from the Illinois River. Some hunters in the vicinity of Bath reported their worst opener in 20 years, and many of the big duck clubs along the Illinois River reported fewer than 1 duck per hunter. Opening day hunting success at Anderson Lake and Rice Lake was 1.2 ducks/hunter which was down from the 2.2 ducks/hunter on opening day in 2015. This year’s harvest was primarily wood ducks and teal. Hunter success (1.6 ducks/hunter) at the Mississippi River Area (MRA) near the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers was a little better than the middle Illinois River; and again, American green-winged teal and wood ducks dominated the harvest. Only 44 mallards were harvested in the entire MRA on opening day. I don’t think it will get much better until this weather pattern breaks and we get a push of birds from the prairies. Until then, be safe and enjoy the mild weather.

Since we’re not having any luck duck hunting, we might as well dream of the big flocks of mallards that should be arriving in November. Stay tuned for more updates next week…

October 21st aerial survey

white-fronted geese
Field feeding greater white-fronted geese

We last flew the waterfowl survey of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers on Tuesday, October 18th following the strong winds that howled all day on Monday. Waterfowl numbers on the Illinois River were up 96% from the previous week at 100,730 ducks; however, we remained 9% below the 10-yr average. Similarly, total duck abundance (140,975) was up 107% along the Mississippi River from the October 10th inventory and was a whopping 134% above the 10-yr average. The majority of those birds were counted at Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge (Swan and Gilbert lakes) at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers near Grafton. Our early season migrants were comprised of non-mallard dabbling ducks including: northern pintail, northern shoveler, gadwall, American wigeon, and American green-winged teal. Due to the relatively mild weather, there were still substantial numbers of blue-winged teal along both rivers.

My scouting reports from the duck marshes indicated there was a movement of birds into both river systems on Sunday morning, October 16th . This immigration of waterfowl was noted on the aerial inventory by the increased numbers of northern pintail and our first sightings of greater white-fronted geese, or specklebellies. “Specks” as the hunters call them, resemble Canada geese at a distance; however, their flight behavior and squeaky voice more closely mimics the lesser snow goose.

Harvest reports from the north zone opener and central zone youth hunt indicated spotty hunting success. I had one hunter from Senachwine Lake report a slow opening day but that harvest picked up on Sunday. Many others reported harvesting mostly wood ducks and teal, especially blue-winged teal. Other reports indicated a decrease in the number of birds at Emiquon on Thursday morning October 20th, and I checked the radar on Thursday evening to find a mass of waterbirds departing the Havana area about an hour after sunset.

To get to this page yourself, Google “nexrad rap ucar” and click the first link that comes up. The radar images are in UTC time which is 5 hrs ahead of central daylight time (CDT) and 6 hrs ahead of CST. So if you want to see the radar from an hour after sunset from the night before, select the end date as today, the end time as 1:00 AM (0100 UTC), and a loop duration of 3 hours. This will give you radar images from 5:00 PM to 8:00 PM. Once you have configured the settings, click the ILX radar icon near Lincoln, IL to see birds departing the middle Illinois River below Peoria. The image from Thursday evening was likely American coots leaving the Emiquon complex and heading southeasterly over Springfield, IL.

The 7:16 PM doppler radar image on October 20th in central Illinois. The green and blue streak in the bottom right portion of the image was actually a weather system passing southeast of Springfield, IL; while the green blob near the center of the image was migrating birds departing the Illinois River valley.

Be safe and enjoy the central zone waterfowl opener this weekend, October 22nd. Stay tuned for more updates next week…

October 12th aerial survey

American green-winged teal intermixed with northern pintail
By zooming into the photo, you may be able to see the small American green-winged
teal intermixed with the much larger northern pintail. These two species were the most abundant ducks during the October 10th waterfowl survey of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. You might even find some blue-winged teal and an American wigeon in the flock.

We resumed our flights of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers this week just prior to the onset of the North Zone Waterfowl Season opener in Illinois. Flooding still persisted along the Illinois River, and recently the central Mississippi River lost some important waterfowl habitat due to extensive flooding from the Quad Cities to Grafton. Port Louisa lost most of its duck food and Keithsburg, Henderson Creek, and Batchtown refuges were hit pretty hard by the flooding as well. Swan Lake, however, at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi looks phenomenal, and duck abundance was great there as I estimated 56,220 ducks on October 10th. Duck abundance (68,125) along the Mississippi River was over 10 times greater than the 10-yr average with the majority of these ducks at Swan Lake. Duck abundance along the Illinois River is climbing, and I estimated 51,335 ducks along the Illinois River this week; however, this estimate was 25% below average for the second week of October. Good Luck hunting this weekend during the North Zone opener and Central Zone Youth Hunt!

This week my topic is American green-winged teal. Green-wings are named for their green iridescent speculums that resemble the much larger northern pintail. Unlike their slightly larger cousins, the blue-wings that reach peak fall numbers in Illinois during mid-September, greenwings won’t peak until the first week of November, and many stopover until late December before heading south to their wintering grounds.

Graph of AGWT abundance in the Illinois and Central Mississippi rivers

Green-wings are the smallest of our North American ducks, weighing about 325 grams (3/4 lb). Their breeding range occurs across Canada and the northwestern United States; however, their primary breeding areas occur in the boreal forest and deciduous parklands all the way up to northern Canada and northwestern Alaska. They winter across the United States and south all the way into Mexico. Core wintering areas include coastal Louisiana and Texas, the Playa Lakes Region of Texas, California’s Central Valley, the lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, and Mexico. Due to their small size and bill structure, they forage on mudflats and very shallow water and in agricultural fields. A study from Illinois during falls 1978-1982 found a plant seed diet (97%) dominated by sedges. We evaluated foods habits of green-wings during spring 2016 along the Illinois River and identified diets consisting of 75% plant materials and 25% invertebrates. Smartweeds were the number one food item; sedges, aquatic worms, rice cutgrass, and pigweed rounded out the top five foods. Interestingly, fingernail clams were the 7th ranked food item despite their low availability on the landscape. In early October, many male green-wings will still have their drab, brown, summer plumage. Yet by mid-November, most males will have molted into their breeding plumage sporting their reddish heads and green eye stripes. Greenwings generally rank in the top five species in Illinois’ waterfowl harvest and were the second most harvested duck in Illinois during fall 2014.

Stay tuned for more updates next week…

September 14th aerial survey

Hunter reports indicated a push of migrant teal along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers the morning of Saturday, September 10th , following the weather system that passed through the prairies on Friday. This influx of birds was noted during the waterfowl count on Wednesday, September 14th .

Teal abundance nearly doubled (up 95%) along the Illinois River valley (IRV). I estimated 33,180 teal in the IRV which was 13% above normal for mid-September. Many of those birds were in the vicinity of Havana with sizable numbers at Chautauqua NWR, Emiquon Preserve, and the drainage and levee districts near Dickson Mounds Museum. Interestingly, a major movement of American coots arrived as well. I estimated 28,910 coots at Emiquon and another 6,500 at Hennepin & Hopper lakes this week. Teal abundance (10,280) along the central Mississippi River was up 22% from the previous week, and 48% above the 10-yr average. They were scattered around in many locations above Hamilton, IL on Pools 17-19. I found another 5,500 teal in the Grafton area. Some of the refuges and hunting areas were starting to pick up water including: Swan Lake, Batchtown, Dardenne, and Ted Shanks.

Last week I mentioned that the submerged aquatic vegetation looked great along the lower reaches of Pool 19. Biologists refer to this type of vegetation as SAV. It is one of the plant groups that make our wetlands so productive, and it was once abundant in the bottomland lakes of the Illinois River. Unfortunately, we have lost much of this vegetation in the IRV for a variety of reasons. Common plants that comprise the group are coontail, sago pondweed, wild celery, southern naiad, and brittle naiad to name a few. Species of SAV are major foods of gadwall, American wigeon, canvasbacks, ring-necked ducks, lesser scaup, and American coots. It is one of the reasons why Pool 19, Emiquon, Hennepin & Hopper, and even Lake Erie and the Chesapeake Bay are such important stopover locations for spring and fall migrating waterbirds. Because of the importance of these aquatic plants, the Forbes Biological Station, University of Illinois, and Western Illinois University are evaluating the true metabolizable energy content of several species of SAV in mallards, gadwall, and ring-necked ducks. Graduate student, Sarah McClain, has been tasked with determining how much energy ducks obtain from SAV. Her results will be useful for waterfowl and wetland conservation across the country.

Good luck teal hunting this weekend and stay tuned for more updates next week…

September 6th aerial survey

Weather permitted us to fly the entire waterfowl survey this week despite the 105o heat index. Teal abundance actually dropped (37%) along the Illinois River compared to the previous week. We have lost blue-winged teal over the last couple weeks due to flooding. I estimated 17,020 teal in the Illinois Valley from Hennepin to Meredosia; however, the total was 21% below average. Hopefully, cooler weather arriving on September 10th and falling river levels will allow us to hold a few more of these early season migrants.

A few ducks are using the central Mississippi River where I estimated 8,420 teal (57% above the 10-yr average). Many areas of the Mississippi River from Quincy to Grafton were still dewatered to promote duck food plants, so water was at a premium so to speak. Speaking of waterfowl habitat, refuges along the Mississippi appeared to be in good condition. Swan Lake NWR looks significantly better than it has in recent years. All the other refuges south of Quincy are at least average and many look to provide excellent habitat this fall. Shanks, Cannon, Delair, Towhead, Batchtown, Cuivre, and Dardenne, as well as, Keithsburg and Louisa should all have abundant food. The submersed vegetation (pondweeds) looks great along Pool 19 so diving ducks should fare well along the central Mississippi.

This week my topic is blue-winged teal. Blue-wings are appropriately named for the large skyblue patch on their wings. In flight, they resemble the much larger northern shoveler. Bluewings are the primary target of the early teal season. They are the first migrant duck to arrive in fall and the last to show up in spring. Most of the blue-winged teal will have departed central Illinois by the last week of September. They winter in the very southern U.S., Mexico, Central America, and northern South America. Blue-wings feed in water <8 inches in depth, usually in very shallow water and sloppy mud. They feed mostly by bill dipping, picking, and submersing their head in the shallow water. Their diet during fall consists mostly of seeds (smartweeds and millets) with the remaining ~25% consisting of insects, snails, and other mollusks. Once we know the foraging methods of blue-wings, we understand how the recent flooding in the Illinois Valley has decimated the wetland habitats used by this small, early-season migrant.

Stay tuned for more updates next week…

August 31st aerial survey

We flew the duck survey on Wednesday, August 31st, and so we begin our 68th year of waterfowl surveys on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. Mother nature got us again… at least along the Illinois River! Extensive rains in the Illinois River watershed in the last couple weeks have caused the river to swell and flooding is ongoing. Almost all the duck clubs and waterfowl refuges from Hennepin to Meredosia lost their duck food this week. The attached photo shows levee overtopping at The Woodyard, a private club on the south side of Goose Lake near Rice Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area. In the foreground, you can see the silty waters of the Illinois River dumping into the cleaner water of Goose Lake. That is some of Illinois’ best topsoil in a place it shouldn’t be. The second photo kind of sums it up for a group of Woodford County duck hunters. A lot of time and effort are put into duck hunting each summer/fall only to have it partially ruined by a wildly fluctuating river.

Heavy fog and low cloud cover prevented us from getting to the lower Mississippi River this week. We anticipated the low ceilings would lift when we left Pekin Airport at 7:45 AM; however, FAA flight regulations prevented us from surveying anything below Clarence Cannon NWR near Annada, MO. I will provide more detail on wetland habitats in the central Mississippi River floodplain next week, but what I saw from Clarence Cannon north to Port Louisa was impressive. If flooding holds off, the central Mississippi River should have ample duck food this fall.

Despite flooding along the Illinois River, duck abundance was up 7% from the 10-yr average. Those early season migrants are starting to arrive including northern pintail, northern shoveler, and blue-winged and American green-winged teal. Total duck numbers were 30,390, of which 82% were blue-winged teal. Unfortunately for many teal hunters, the majority of the teal were sitting on Emiquon and the North Pool of Chautauqua NWR. I won’t speculate yet about teal numbers along the central Mississippi River because I wasn’t able to fly some important bird areas near the Illinois River confluence.

Good luck teal and Canada goose hunting and have a safe Labor Day weekend; stay tuned for more updates next week…

December 15th aerial survey

We completed the waterfowl survey on Tuesday, December 15th. Surprisingly, there were still good numbers of mallards (120,545) in the Illinois Valley where they were matching the 10-yr average. Total ducks were 26% above average for mid-December reflecting the mild weather we have encountered this fall. Normally our lakes and marshes are frozen by the middle of December.

Waterfowl numbers along the Mississippi River were very abundant (624,000 total ducks) and were 143% above average. Mallards were packed into many of the refuges and were 133% above average. We saw sheetwater everywhere from the rains that passed through the region the previous weekend. In fact, I have never seen the Cannon Refuge so full of water during fall. The entire refuge had shallowly flooded moist-soil vegetation and the ducks responded. My count (222,755 ducks) was a record number for Cannon during fall since the inception of the waterfowl survey back in 1948.

My blog photo for the week again delves into the aerial view of feeding ducks. When you scan the left side of the photo, you see the muddy water where the mallards have been foraging compared to the relatively clear water on the right side of the photo. Some hunters purposely stir the water in their decoy spread to mimic this view and make their decoys more realistic.

This will be my last blog for the year so good luck in the remaining days of the 2015 duck season.

December 8th aerial survey

This photo from Spunky Bottoms on the lower Illinois River shows the muddy water where mallards were stirring up the substrate while feeding in the shallows. You might even find some fleeing greater white-fronted geese in the mix.

We completed the waterfowl survey on Tuesday, December 8th following the fog on Monday. Water levels were elevated along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, and several of the mallards were still located in the flooded timber; especially along the Illinois.

Illinois River numbers were stable from the preceding week at 190,910 total ducks and were 7% above the 10-yr average. However, mallards (130,350) were 16% below average for this time of year. We have had the same number of mallards in the Illinois Valley since before Thanksgiving and hunter harvest reflects this trend. Hunting reports from the field indicated the mallards were call, decoy, and blind shy so if you’ve been harvesting mallards, you’re one of the lucky hunters along the Illinois River.

Once again the Mississippi River had more ducks than the Illinois River. Total duck abundance was (463,540); down 29% from the previous week, but still 87% ahead of the 10-yr average. It appeared to me that those big numbers of ducks at Louisa, Swan Lake, Long Lake, Dardenne, and Cannon refuges were down from the December 3rd flight. Also the canvasback numbers on Pool 19 dropped considerably (39%) from last week.

On a brighter note, I saw several big bunches of greater white-fronted geese and snow geese along both rivers. This should make the Illinois goose hunters happy.

Stay tuned for more updates next week…