LITTLE ROCK — At the same time Arkansas’s December duck population estimates were about half what is typically expected for that time of the year, Illinois aerial surveys of its usual spots of duck habitat, such as the central Mississippi River region, went the other direction: about 50 percent more birds counted in their estimate than what is usually seen.
Missouri biologists and the Missouri Department of Conservation duck counts for December also showed pockets in the southeast in proximity to Arkansas that contained fair numbers, though nothing to forecast a wave there waiting to move south.
From those observations, can we hunters extrapolate that there are numbers of ducks still “out there,” they just haven’t made it to The Natural State in the usual numbers yet?
Luke Naylor, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s waterfowl program coordinator, said he’s not sure. “Maybe some ducks are still as far north as South Dakota. Weather has been mild. Yes, numbers are higher along the Mississippi River in portions of Illinois, but numbers in Missouri aren’t really through the roof. So I don’t think we should expect ducks to be coming from Missouri. We’ve had normal to below-normal temperatures here lately, maybe lulling people into thinking ducks should be on the move. Much of the midcontinent mallard range has experienced above average temperatures.”
It should be noted, too, that in both Missouri and Illinois, according to their conservation agencies, blogs and in reports carried in other duck-centric publications, hunter satisfaction with duck season in terms of harvest has been low, even though biologists are noting more ducks on the landscape in the river that separates those states, as well as further in Illinois. Like what was noted by Arkansas biologists in their aerial survey Dec. 7-10, when the state’s 60-day season was in a 10-day hiatus, many ducks were seen in sanctuary areas where they would not have been hunted anyway. In Arkansas, even with no hunting for a few days with the exception of the Dec. 5 youth, veterans and active military special hunt, ducks weren’t venturing out far from the sanctuary areas, though the lack of usual December habitat was limiting those other areas anyway.
With a major ice and snow buildup in the northern United States and colder temperatures there, and perhaps with more late-year rainfall arriving here, the hope is that Arkansas’s duck numbers, particularly mallards, will begin to swell as typical for January. The AGFC aerial survey team will be back in the skies the week of Jan. 4 to check.
“We need rain,” Naylor said. “We have precious little habitat for a duck to find if they did move this way. Extensive habitat created by flooding is what drives duck numbers here. We haven’t had the rain necessary to create that flooding.”
This office did receive anecdotal reports of more ducks seen in the southeastern Delta region than had been noted during the first segment of the season. Lack of duck habitat (water) continues to be a problem in some of the public lands that depend on river rises, overbank flooding and the like, however. Geese numbers continue to be good in the Delta. The aerial survey by AGFC biologists indicated more greater white-fronted geese (300,000 estimated) than mallards in early December, though lesser geese (snows, blues and Ross’s) were less than expected for the period, at 542,231, bringing total geese estimates to more than 800,000.
One positive of the aerial survey seemed to be the numbers seen in southwest Arkansas; we were struck with how much those estimates outdistanced Arkansas River Valley in ducks counted for early December in spite of habitat problems in both areas. Observers conducting transect-based surveys estimated 16,958 ducks in the Arkansas River Valley, including only 7,416 mallards. Cruise surveys in southwest Arkansas showed a total of 45,832 ducks, of which 12,367 were mallards.
The highest concentrations of mallards in Arkansas in the survey were seen in the Bayou Macon, Cache River and Lower St. Francis River survey zones. “Duck density maps show several areas of relatively higher duck and mallard abundance across the Delta, but bright red hot spots are rare,” according to Luke Naylor, AGFC waterfowl program coordinator. Biologists canvassing the Arkansas Delta, the Arkansas River Valley and southwest Arkansas estimated 632,977 total ducks, of which 255,052 were mallards. The AGFC has been conducting aerial surveys of waterfowl since 2009 and the 2020 mallard estimate was the lowest since the formal surveys began.
The Delta mallard population was less than half the 2009-2020 long-term December average of over 624,000. Similarly, total duck population estimates were about half the long-term average of over 1.17 million ducks. Naylor noted that ducks were not widely scattered across the landscape during the survey period, particularly through the Delta, because of dry conditions, limited overbank flooding and relatively low amounts of flooded agricultural fields statewide.
Illinois has been conducting aerial surveys steadily since 1949. The 330,000 or so ducks counted in the central Mississippi River in the first half of December were decidedly more than the long-term (2010-2019) average of 220,000 ducks.
Arkansas’s regular waterfowl reason has its last break Dec. 24-25 before resuming Dec. 26 and continuing uninterrupted to its close at sunset Jan. 31.