November 20th aerial inventory

There are still a bunch of ducks along both the Illinois and Mississippi rivers with 600,330 and 597,335 total ducks, respectively. These numbers are very similar to what was here last week. Actually, I think these ducks have been here for a couple weeks now. Many duck clubs and public land hunters are telling me that the harvest has dropped off over the last several days. Hunters like to call these birds “stale”. In other words, they have been in the area for too long and have figured out where the refuges are. They are duck blind, decoy, and call shy. Duck hunting is best when we have many smaller duck migrations into Illinois. These new influxes of ducks every 4 or 5 days create a situation where new birds are mingling around the various wetlands trying to find food and refuge. Therefore, they are more naïve and huntable than ducks that have been around for a while.

Speaking of harvest, where do you think our mallards come from? The accompanying slide shows where mallards harvested in Illinois breed. Band recovery data from the 1990’s shows that while we still get a lot of our birds from the prairies, the percentage of mallards coming from the Great Lakes states has increased substantially since the 1960’s. Over 28% of our mallard harvest comes from ducks reproducing in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, and yes, right here in Illinois. Let’s hear it for the Conservation Reserve Program for putting grasslands back on the landscape!

Good luck in the deer stand this weekend and stay tuned for more updates next week…

November 14th aerial inventory

Wow, we had a bunch of ducks. Last week’s count of the Illinois River was 876,255 total ducks. This was a huge number of birds for recent times. In fact, you would have to go back to 1979, when Tud Crompton was flying the survey, to get a larger number of ducks in the Illinois Valley. Michelle Horath told me last week’s number of American green-winged teal, gadwall, and northern shoveler was the highest ever recorded for each of these species since the survey began back in 1948. Frank Bellrose himself never saw that many teal, gadwall, and shoveler. However, it was short lived. The cold weather and northerly wind on Monday and Tuesday forced many of them out of the Illinois Valley. I have displayed a screenshot on Facebook of Doppler radar shortly after sunset on Tuesday night. It was a clear night so the “thunderstorm” you see is actually ducks departing the Illinois River. You can see large masses of birds leaving the Havana/Bath and Chillicothe/Lacon areas of the river. Today’s, November 14th, count of the Illinois River was 595,055 down 32% from last week, but don’t get discouraged. We are still 150% above the 10-yr average. I plan to fly the Mississippi River on Friday November 15th, so check back tomorrow to see how many birds we have on the Mississippi.

Stay tuned for more updates next week…

November 6th aerial inventory

I was recently asked to settle a dispute between a father and son, both veteran duck hunters of the Illinois River. They had a disagreement about how big their decoy spread should be. The question was posed, “while flying, can you tell one blind from another by just the size of decoy spread.” My answer was a very quick, YES. I can see larger decoy spreads from greater distances while in the airplane. I can also see larger groups of ducks at greater distances than smaller concentrations given similar wetland habitats. I know of duck blinds along the Mississippi River that use 4,000 to 5,000 decoys with 10-15 spinners, a few squirters, and a couple jerk strings. They shoot a lot of ducks. Other clubs use a few dozen decoys that are picked up each day, and they are very successful as well. Most of the time from the plane, I can’t tell the difference between expensive decoys and the cheaper variety, but I think this boils down to personal preference. I can’t say for sure if ducks decoy better and hunter success increases over larger spreads, but my personal experience suggests you need as many decoys as your wallet can afford. Other things I see from the air are the openings (shooting holes) in duck blinds. These openings stand out and maybe the ducks begin to figure it out as well. The same thing goes for a boat placed 25 yds from a decoy spread. The hunter might not be able to see the boat from the ground, but a wary mallard can see it from the air. In the end, it comes down to location, location, and location. If they guy next to you has 1,000 decoys, you’re probably not going to be very successful with 2 to 3 dozen. I have posted (Facebook – Forbes Biological Station) a few pictures of decoy spreads taken from the plane for you to view. I believe hunters in duck blinds that blend into the existing vegetation with decoy spreads that simulate natural aggregations of ducks on a wetland probably harvest more birds than other hunters in less cryptically positioned blinds with fewer and evenly spaced decoys. But, you be the judge.

Stay tuned for more updates next week…

October 28th aerial inventory

Well, we made it through the central zone opener and from what I hear it was pretty good overall. Opening day is always met with a huge amount of optimism; however, in reality, it isn’t one of the days that stand out over the course of the season. I have word from the Mississippi River Area that they harvested nearly 2,600 ducks; 31% above the long term average and 2.13 birds per hunter. Hunters at the Emiquon complex also found similar success at just under 2 birds each. Other Illinois River public sites boasted average to above average harvests, and several private duck clubs in the Havana area harvested 10-15 ducks per blind. If your hunt wasn’t as successful, don’t get discouraged. As one hunter told me, “it’s just the start buddy.”

We usually have a major jump in the number of waterfowl observed in the Illinois River valley after the central zone opener due to the fact that ducks are concentrated on the refuges after being forced out of hunted wetlands. This trend continued again this year; however, the number was so staggering, we must have had a movement of ducks into Illinois. Total duck numbers in the IRV jumped from nearly 361,000 total ducks on October 23rd to over 595,000 on October 28th. This was a 65% increase over the 5-day period. Similar to last week, non-mallard dabblers are accounting for the majority of total ducks along both the Illinois and Mississippi rivers with northern pintail, gadwall, and American green-winged teal contributing greatly to the overall total. Mississippi River hunters should be encouraged because lesser scaup have started trickling in on Pool 19. This year has the potential to be a banner year for waterfowl hunters along both rivers. Let’s hope the trend continues as the migration progresses.

Stay tuned for more updates next week…

October 23rd aerial inventory

Wow, this week’s inventory of the Illinois River had 360,860 total ducks which was 167% greater than the 10-yr average for 3rd week in October. This is an astonishing number of ducks for an October flight, and it exceeded the fall peak number of ducks along the river in 16 of 65 years of data collection. Total ducks this week were 43% higher than the 10-yr average for midNovember. I observed more American green-winged teal, gadwall, and northern shovelers this week than have ever been observed along the Illinois River in October, and it was the 2nd highest number of northern pintail ever observed during an October flight. Amazingly, I still had 7,610 blue-winged teal on the flight; normally blue-winged teal have nearly all departed by this time of year. Total duck numbers along the Mississippi River were not as staggering as the Illinois, but they were still 33% above the 10-yr average; non-mallard dabblers were boosting numbers on the Mississippi. The lower numbers along the Mississippi River are likely due to the fact that several refuges have only partially flooded; namely Cuivre, Cannon, Delair, and Shanks. Total duck numbers along both rivers should offer excellent hunting opportunities for Illinois’ central zone, waterfowl opener this weekend. Let’s hope Mother Nature cooperates and provides some “ducky” weather!

Stay tuned for more updates next week…

October 14th aerial inventory

This weekend marks opening day of duck season in the north zone of Illinois. Nearly all refuges and hunting clubs along both rivers are pumping or moving water, duck blinds are brushed, and it appears everyone is ready for the opener. Hennepin & Hopper on the upper Illinois is the noteworthy area this fall. It is very similar to the Emiquon Preserve located downstream. Hennepin & Hopper was completely dewatered during 2012 for invasive carp removal; however, the basin is now full again and submersed aquatic vegetation (SAV) is back and plentiful. This type of vegetation grows under the water’s surface and is the food of choice for many waterbird species including gadwall, American wigeon, lesser scaup, canvasbacks, and American coots. In fact, nearly 23,000 coots were observed on the site during this week’s inventory.

I estimated 168,375 ducks on the Illinois River this week which was 83% above the most recent 10-yr average and 43% greater than last year’s estimate (Oct. 15th). Northern pintail and American green-winged teal comprise nearly 60% of total ducks along the Illinois River. I also estimated over 77,000 ducks on the Mississippi River this week which was 23% above the 10-yr average; however, total ducks were only 6% greater than last year at this time. Like the Illinois River, Northern pintail and American green-winged teal comprised the majority (81%) of total ducks counted along the Mississippi River this week.

Stay tuned for more updates next week…

September 13th aerial inventory

The weather finally allowed us to get the 2nd teal flight in last Friday the 13th. Excessive temperatures prevented the flight early in the week, and fog was an issue on Thursday. Our flights start shortly after sunrise and take 6 to 8 h to complete; depending on how many ducks are here. If you’re ever wondering why a flight hasn’t been posted, please consider what the weather was like over the entire survey route (Pekin to Grafton; Grafton to the Quad Cities; cut across country to Hennepin, and back to Pekin). Wind is an issue too, as I have a hard time counting ducks when the wind approaches or exceeds 20 mph. Waterfowl numbers will be distributed as soon as I get them tallied, and Michelle Horath, former observer of the INHS waterfowl flights, posts them to our web page ( after I tally the location data.

Not much changed between the 3rd and the 13th of September. Teal numbers in the Illinois River valley increased by only 4% from the previous week; however, there was a more even mix of blue-wings and green-wings. Teal numbers on the Mississippi increased (66%), but there were fewer than 7,000 teal recorded at Mississippi River refuges. On a brighter note, several duck clubs and refuges started pumping water in anticipation of fall migration. Hopefully the cooler weather and north winds will increase the number of ducks along both rivers before the last weekend of teal season. Finally, the 3rd teal flight will be late again this week. Mechanical issues with the airplane will prevent the flight until at least Wednesday, September 18th .

September 3rd aerial inventory

I completed my first flight for fall 2013 on Tuesday. It started out as a great day to fly with cool temperatures, clear skies, and light and variable winds. Temperatures peaked in the low 80’s by 3 PM when I recorded a temperature in the cockpit of 98 degrees. Duck numbers for the Illinois River exceeded the 10-yr weekly average by 60% and totaled 38,620 total ducks. Blue-winged (22,555) and American green-winged teal (6,230) exceeded their 10-yr weekly average by 51% and 31%, respectively. Total ducks on the Mississippi River were near the 10-yr average and totaled 5,300 ducks; although blue-winged teal (3,610) were 17% below average for the first week of September. With the heat wave currently hitting the prairies, I doubt we get a push of teal by the opener on Saturday, September 7th. The extended forecast for Devils Lake, ND, shows milder temperatures by the middle of next week so let’s hope for a movement of teal into Illinois by the second weekend of teal season. Wetland habitat conditions for waterfowl are variable this fall. The extended flooding of the rivers during spring 2013 prevented early drawdowns. The Illinois River fell below 8 ft. at Havana on July 18th and has remained low to date.

Wetland managers that dewatered had time to grow moist-soil vegetation “duck groceries” and a few areas have abundant submersed aquatic vegetation. Indeed, some areas look great; notables include Cuba Island, Carlson Unit at Anderson Lake, Chautauqua NWR, Emiquon Preserve, Hitchcock Slough, Swan Lake, and Hennepin & Hopper. Similarly, a few areas along the Mississippi River have above average duck forage this fall including, Delair, Cannon, Batchtown, Arthur, and Louisa refuges. However, many refuges along both rivers held their water or only partially dewatered. My estimate of duck food in the Illinois and Mississippi river valleys is slightly below average for fall 2013.