Abandoned flight

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.

Be careful out there!

For those of you hunting snow geese and greater white-fronted geese, there are a few large concentrations around. This flock of snows was using Swan Lake at Two Rivers NWR on December 10, 2020.
I thought this photo was neat with the shadow of the airplane on the ducks at Clarence Cannon Refuge, Missouri on December 10, 2020.
Some of the remaining northern pintails basking in the sun at Clarence Cannon National Wildlife Refuge near Annada, Missouri on December 10, 2020. Note how the pintail have congregated on the shallow mudflats near the moist-soil vegetation rather than randomly spacing themselves in the water.

Illinois River Waterfowl Aerial Inventory – 12/10/2020

Central Mississippi Waterfowl Aerial Inventory – 12/10/2020

Cold-weather ducks

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.

Be careful in the cold and ice!

Ducks using an open water area on one of the frozen refuges on December 2nd, 2020.
A dense flock of mallards.
More mallards from the central Mississippi River.
Can you pick out the northern pintail and green-winged teal among these mallards?

Illinois River Waterfowl Aerial Inventory – 12/2/2020

Central Mississippi Waterfowl Aerial Inventory – 12/2/2020

Still lots of ducks

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!

Illinois River Waterfowl Aerial Inventory – 11/17/2020

Central Mississippi Waterfowl Aerial Inventory – 11/17/2020

Honey Point dabblers
Honey Point dabblers at Meredosia Lake, near Meredosia, Illinois.
Pool 19 divers near Hamilton, Illinois. Note the white canvasbacks, grayish lesser scaup, and darker colored ruddy ducks in the mix.
Northern pintails and mallards on Rice Pond Preserve near Chillicothe, Illinois.
Note the dull coloration of the green-winged teal loafing on the southern end of Ted Shanks refuge near Louisiana, Missouri.
Mallards and assorted dabblers basking in the sun at Ted Shanks refuge near Louisiana, Missouri.