For the third consecutive year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a promising report last week on trends in duck-breeding populations.
The 2014 report estimated there were 49.2 million breeding ducks in the surveyed area, up 8 percent from last year and 43 percent higher than the 1955-2013 long-term average.
The estimate on mallards, the duck most pursued by Illinois hunters, was 10.9 million, similar to 2013 and 42 percent above the long-term average.
That brought this from Ducks Unlimited chief executive officer Dale Hall: ‘‘It looks like another good waterfowl breeding year for a good portion of the prairies and the boreal forest. Precipitation in the form of snow and rain has provided sufficient water to fill important wetlands in key breeding habitats. We hope this will result in good production and another great flight of birds migrating in the fall.’’
There’s the rub, especially for duck hunters in northeastern Illinois: Do good breeding-population estimates mean huntable birds migrating in the fall?
I asked Randy Smith, the manager of Illinois’ wetland wildlife program.
‘‘I think hunters often see the big b-pop numbers and assume the skies will be black with ducks and their game straps will be heavy every day,’’ he replied. ‘‘That is not reality.’’
I will plead guilty.
‘‘Remember, of the almost 50 million ducks counted, about 20 percent are mallards and nearly 20 percent are blue-winged teal,’’ he emailed. ‘‘Almost all the teal will be well through Illinois prior to opening day. That leaves about 60 percent of the remaining estimated population as non-mallard ducks.
‘‘If you hunt in an area that typically sees mallards and geese, with other species only occasionally making an appearance, this high b-pop is not likely going to have a significant effect on your hunting. If you hunt an area that attracts a wide variety of species, then you may very well see more birds this year.’’
He used last year as an example.
‘‘Hunting in Illinois was pretty dang good last year at most historic ducking areas,’’ he emailed. ‘‘Short-lived but good. Our numbers at most sites were average, despite losing nearly half the season to the early freeze. So if guys took in 30 days what they usually take in 50 (given about 10 days lost to ice normally), they had to be having pretty good success.
‘‘Perhaps things were slow in [northeast Illinois], but that is more a lack of habitat and refuge to concentrate ducks. There just isn’t much there in terms of big complexes of habitat, as compared to other areas of the state. Geese and mallards, of course, concentrate late on the cooling lakes, and the prolonged cold seemed to do a good job of holding them on the hot water this past year.’’
In northern Illinois, roughly half of the 60-day duck season last year was lost when most waters locked by late November.
For hunters, the estimates mean liberal hunting seasons: a 16-day teal season with a daily bag of six and a 60-day duck season with a daily bag of six.
‘‘As for how it will affect hunters, there will be a significant number of ducks migrating south again this year,’’ Smith said. ‘‘Whether you meet up with them while they are over your decoys or while visible in your local refuge depends on many, many factors, not the least of which are weather, habitat, food resources, site management, hunters’ ability to be out on the right days and a healthy dose of luck.’’