December 1st aerial survey

We flew the waterfowl inventory on Wednesday, November 29th. The Illinois River was 45% above the 10-yr average for total ducks. However, we have been hovering around 325,000 ducks for a couple of weeks now. The Illinois River had 172,090 mallards, but they were only up 1% from last week. The Mississippi River was 61% above the 10-yr average, and mallards were up 109% from last week and estimated at 402,800 birds. I’m not sure what was going with the big increase in mallards on the Mississippi. Based on hunting reports, I don’t think we had a major influx of migrant mallards. Maybe these ducks have been around the area for several weeks and have finally moved into the refuges counted from the air. Over the past 10 years, Illinois River mallard numbers have peaked on November 30th, with the Mississippi River being slightly later on December 3rd. Hopefully, all we need is weather and little ice to make them move around on the landscape. The weather forecast indicates we might just get those colder temperatures around Wednesday, December 6th. Let’s hope so because these ducks are stale.

Stay tuned for more updates next week…

November 15th aerial survey

We flew the waterfowl inventory on Monday, November 13th just 3 days following the Illinois River flight from last week. We usually would not do back-to-back flights, but the weather forecast was unpredictable for the rest of the week. Despite the short turn around, total duck abundance (387,440) on the Illinois was up 22% from last week and was 32% above normal. It appeared as though we had a little push of mallards over the weekend, and mallard numbers were up 14%. We also noticed a few black ducks in the counts this week. Duck numbers (640,180) on the Mississippi River were very similar to the previous week and were 92% above the 10-yr average. Numbers at Two Rivers NWR dropped about 58,000 ducks from last week; however, I suspect those birds have redistributed around the duck clubs in St. Charles County Missouri due to the early split in the Missouri, Middle Zone, duck season.

I wanted to send a little praise this week to Sanganois SFWA on the Illinois River. Waterfowl habitat at Sanganois looks phenomenal this year, and their duck harvest corresponds. Over the first 17 days of the season, Sanganois has harvested 3,726 ducks, or 219 ducks per day. We are fortunate for the dedication of the site staff and cooperation of the Illinois River. In late July, we were within inches of losing the bountiful crop of moist-soil to river flooding. I am also monitoring duck use of the Ash Swale Refuge this year. For those of you interested in those numbers, I am including a blurb each week in the email I send to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Ash Swale is comprised of willow and buttonbush, and it is hard to see the birds in the dense vegetation; however, this week I estimated 15,000 ducks using the refuge and I have no doubt that number is biased low due to the poor visibility in the woody vegetation.

If you can zoom in on the attached photo I took this week, you may be able to find a pair of American black ducks towards the lower end of the flock. By coincidence, a friend of the Forbes Biological Station sent me a photo of a mallard x black duck hybrid he harvested this week on Quiver Creek adjacent to Chautauqua NWR. The bird has characteristics of both mallard and black duck and is a very beautiful specimen. According to the annual parts collection survey (Wingbee) conducted each year by the USFWS, a duck hunter in Illinois has a 0.25% chance of harvesting a mallard:black duck hybrid for every mallard taken. This equates to 1 hybrid for every 400 harvested mallards. Ron, I think you should buy a lottery ticket this week!

Stay tuned for more updates next week…

November 7th aerial survey

We flew the waterfowl inventory of the Mississippi River on Monday, November 6th. We had some electrical issues with the plane at the start of the survey, preventing us from getting the Illinois River flight completed. I hope to fly the Illinois River on Friday, November 10th.

Total ducks on the Mississippi River were staggering at 146% above the 10-yr average and 86% above last week’s count. We had an influx of divers throughout the Mississippi River bordering Illinois, and we estimated 38,500 bluebills on Pool 19 this week. Most noteworthy was the number of birds in confluence region of the Illinois & Mississippi rivers. Swan Lake, which is part of Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, was holding ~324,000 ducks. This number is very large for the first week of November. In fact, this was the 3rd largest duck count at Swan Lake since the inception of the waterfowl surveys back in 1948; only to be beaten by December 5th , 1955 (581,495 ducks) and November 28th, 1952 (341,595 ducks). It was the largest count of northern pintail, gadwall, and ring-necked ducks ever recorded at Swan Lake, and the 65,400 gadwall at Swan Lake was the largest number recorded at one location along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers over the 69-yr history of the waterfowl survey. Enjoy them while they’re here!

Stay tuned for more updates next week…

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…