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2010 bird forecast: ducks, geese, pheasant, quail, grouse and woodcock--we give you the good, bad and ugly predictions for fall.

The numbers are in, and based on reports from various state and federal agencies, it's either a good or bad time to be a bird hunter. Of course, this all depends on whether you like to get your feet wet or prefer to plow through waist-high brush on dry land. Either way, there are plenty of birds to go around, although in some instances those numbers will be considerably lower than past years.

Here's a look at the state of bird hunting throughout the country this year.

DUCKS STEADY

Depending on fall flight patterns, duck hunters throughout North America will again experience good hunting, thanks largely to an upward trend in suitable breeding habitat. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's May pond counts for the Prairie Pothole Region showed an increase of 4 percent over last year. Even better, the latest pond count is 34 percent above the long-term average overall and 129 percent above the long-term average for the eastern Dakotas.

That increase in water translates to excellent duck production. The total number of ducks this year is about 40.9 million, down slightly from last year's count of 42 million, but it's a statistically insignificant decline. Even better, the current total duck population estimate is 21 percent above long-term averages. (Editor's Note: As of the time of this writing, hatch counts were not yet available. All estimates quoted are based on nesting surveys.)

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Hunters will have a crack at an estimated 8.4 million mallards, the most common duck in North America. Mallard numbers are down just 1 percent from last year. However, they are 12 percent higher than the long-term average. Although pintails are 13 percent below their historic average, their numbers increased 9 percent over last year, and an estimated 3.5 million pintails will make their way south this year. Most other species showed either slight gains or insignificant losses as well. For example, gadwalls are down 3 percent, scaup are up 2 percent and green-wing teal are down 1 percent.

Blue-winged teal showed a 14 percent decline from last year's count, but are still well above the long-term average. Biologists estimate 6.4 million blue-wings will make their way south this year. Delta Waterfowl senior vice-president John Devney figures the decline in the annual survey could be a result of the wet conditions south of the Prairie Pothole Region.

"Blue-winged teal have been known to stop short of their traditional nesting grounds if they find suitable nesting habitat on their way back north. I've heard reports of teal nesting in Missouri and other states that have been abnormally wet this year," he says.

Green-winged teal numbers are nearly identical to those of last year: The population is estimated at 3.47 million birds. However, green-wings are 78 percent above the long-term average and should provide fantastic early-season hunting this fall. Most other ducks are well above their long-term averages as well. Only widgeon are below historic population levels.

Not all of the news coming from the Prairie Pothole Region is good, however. Despite a positive trend in potential nesting habitat, the actual amount of suitable nesting habitat has declined significantly over the last decade. Devney says 2 million acres of grass has been lost since 1999 in North and South Dakota alone. Millions more acres of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program are set to expire in the next four years. This decline is a likely explanation why duck numbers aren't significantly higher than last year, figures Devney.

Also, for the first time ever, more ducks are nesting in the United States than in Canada, a reflection of the decline in suitable habitat north of the border. Nearly two-thirds of the Prairie Pothole Region lies in Canada, but Devney says Canada is lagging far behind the United States in waterfowl-friendly conservation programs.

"That will have some serious impacts down the road," he says.

Overall, the number of birds nesting in the southern regions of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta was down significantly, while it was up 167 percent in the eastern Dakotas. He notes that last year was the first time more pintails nested in the United States than in Canada, and this year three times as many nested south of the border than in Canada.

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Despite good reports from the PPR, duck hunters in the Atlantic Flyway will likely see fewer ducks this year. The number of black ducks dipped slightly, from 466,000 to 444,000, but American widgeon saw the largest decline in the Eastern survey area. Thirty-nine percent fewer birds were counted, and the birds are 61 percent below their long-term average in the East. Mergansers are down 15 percent, and scoters' numbers are off 26 percent. Mallards are also down significantly.

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GEESE STABLE

Goose hunters should see high numbers of birds throughout much of the country, as most populations are well above U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service objectives. Mid-continent snow geese, which have been under heavy hunting pressure for nearly a decade thanks to relaxed regulations and extended seasons, are still at at least twice the levels wildlife managers would like to see. This season as many as 2.8 million snows will fly south through the Mississippi and Central flyways. Canada goose populations also remain strong throughout three of the four flyways, thanks to good nesting conditions in northern Canada, but they continue to be depressed in the Atlantic Flyway. However, numbers continue to inch upward thanks to reduced bag limits and shorter seasons. The Atlantic population of Canadas is about 180,000--still well below the USFWS's population objective of 225,000. Atlantic Flyway goose hunters will also see high numbers of greater snow geese.

PHEASANT BOOM'S OVER

(For Now)

After experiencing some of the best pheasant hunting in decades, hunters will have to work a little harder to fill their limits this season. A harsh winter and heavy spring rains throughout much of the pheasant belt will result in depressed bird numbers and tough hunting in some areas. Some regions, however, were spared the brunt of the heavy snow, which stayed on the ground for weeks, and will see another high-quality season.

For example, late-spring crowing surveys in Kansas are showing that this season's population will be similar to last year's statewide. However, south-central Kansas had a 17 percent decrease in the number of roosters heard by observers, while the northeastern region experienced an 8 percent increase according to a report released by the Kansas Department of Parks & Wildlife. Other parts of the state will see bird populations similar to last season.

South Dakota experienced record snows that stayed on the ground longer than normal, which could mean fewer birds this year, particularly in the northern counties, which bore the brunt of the severe winter. To make matters worse, says South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks senior upland game biologist Travis Runia, much of the state experienced an unusually wet spring and early summer--one of the wettest on record.

"Wet weather is bad for chick survival, so I expect we will see a decline in the number of juvenile birds in this season's harvest," says Runia.

On top of that, South Dakota has lost 500,000 acres of CRP land in the last three years and will lose another 125,000 acres in the coming year, he adds. The state is also losing native prairie grasses, which has had a significant negative impact on sharptail grouse and prairie chickens. Runia says hunters harvested about 175,000 prairie grouse in the mid-'70s, but only about 40,000 birds last year.

"We still have good hunting on the native grasslands west of Pierre," he notes.

Parts of Nebraska got hammered by severe weather last winter, and that could spell trouble for parts of this popular pheasant state. Nebraska Game & Parks Commission upland game program manager Jeff Lusk says the central and eastern regions were particularly hard hit, and there was a 10 to 40 percent decline in the spring mail carrier survey. While Lusk says the index isn't necessarily a reflection of the total population, it does provide at least some insight into overall trends. To make matters worse, parts of the state experienced heavy and prolonged rains during the peak of the hatch, which will likely result in a decrease of juvenile birds this fall. Lusk explains that young chicks can't tolerate wet, cold weather and have a high mortality rate under such conditions.

"The southwest region should be our bright spot. It didn't get the severe winter weather other parts of the state got, and it didn't get the rains this spring either," Lusk says.

Things continue to spiral downward in Iowa, which has seen four years of harsh winters and at least two years of poor nesting conditions. Iowa Department of Natural Resources upland wildlife biologist Todd Bogenschutz says last year's harvest was just 271,000 birds, down from 700,000 to 800,000 roosters during the early 2000s. Unfortunately, things will likely be even worse this season, says Bogenschutz, thanks to a severe winter that included record deep snow and freezing rain. In fact, it was one of the worst winters in Iowa history. To make matters worse, this year's nesting season was poor as well.

"June was the second-wettest month in Iowa ever. That's not good for pheasant recruitment," he says.

Despite the gloomy outlook there are still plenty of birds for the taking, and Bogenschutz expects hunters will kill more than 200,000 pheasants this season.

North Dakota was spared much of the severe winter weather that affected Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota and is expecting another good year. Last season, hunters killed 650,000 birds. It was just another in a string of good years since 2001, according to North Dakota Game & Fish Department upland game management supervisor Stan Kohn. He says conditions look favorable for another banner season.

"We've been wet, but I don't think it will be so bad as to have a big impact on our nesting success," he says.

QUAIL CONTINUE TO STRUGGLE

Bobwhites continue to struggle throughout much of their traditional range, but Texas, one of the last major strongholds for bobwhite quail, will see an upswing in bird numbers. Hunters actually experienced a poor season last year thanks to a severe drought, one of the worst in recent memory, says Texas Parks & Wildlife game bird project coordinator Robert Perez. This season, however, is likely to be much better.

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"We've had almost perfect brood conditions this year all over the state," he says. "Ideally, quail need a cool, wet summer, which is exactly what we've had. I've gotten reports of early broods and more broods than I have in quite a while, so things are looking pretty good."

Bobwhite numbers are also on the upswing in western Oklahoma and Kansas, again as a result of good nesting conditions in the spring and summer.

Quail continue to struggle throughout the southeast, although a few pockets of birds continue to hang on where habitat remains suitable. Generally, however, the short-term outlook for southeastern bobwhites isn't good, thanks largely to a continued and wide-scale loss of habitat.

Some western quail hunters will experience better flush rates than last year, expects New Mexico Game & Fish biologist Mark Madison. He says nesting and habitat conditions are good to excellent in southeastern New Mexico, which is home to scaled quail, while conditions are favorable in Gambel's quail country in the southwestern sections.

Quail and pheasant numbers in the northwest, however, will likely be down, the result of an unusually wet spring. Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife upland game section manager Mick Cope says the region saw its wettest spring in 50 years. How that plays out with upland bird populations wasn't known at the time of this writing, but Cope expects pheasant and quail numbers to be down from previous seasons.

"It wasn't extremely cold, so that could help with chick survival, but the timing of those rains will determine whether we will have good hunting," he says. "I have been hearing reports of quail broods, so there will certainly be a few birds around."

GROUSE & WOODCOCK SLIDE

Ruffed grouse populations continue to remain strong in traditional Great Lakes region strongholds thanks to a recent upswing in the bird's population cycle. However, the cycle peaked in 2009, says Ruffed Grouse Society director of conservation policy Dan Dessecker, and it's starting to trend downward. In other words, the time to head to Michigan, Minnesota or Wisconsin is right now. Dessecker says brood conditions were good throughout most of the Great Lakes region this spring, so he expects good hunting opportunities despite the cyclical trend.

"During the peak of the cycle, flush rates were anywhere from six to seven birds per hour," he says. "It won't be quite that good this season, but it will still be pretty good overall."

New England grouse hunters will also experience good flush rates, says Ruffed Grouse Society regional biologist Andy Weik, who says nesting conditions were good throughout much of the region. In other areas, however, grouse numbers continue to fall at an alarming pace thanks largely to a continued loss of suitable habitat. Dessecker says ruffed grouse rely on young forests, and, thanks largely to a change in federal policy, there is little timber harvest on public land. As a result, grouse populations continue to slide. Harvest rates in Virginia, which has 1.8 million acres of national forest, have plummeted from 68,400 in 1996 to just over 13,000 last season. The outlook remains poor in the bird's southern range, and Pennsylvania hunters will likely face another tough season as well, although there are pockets of good habitat with high numbers of birds in some areas.

It will likely be a tough year for woodcock hunters also. Because woodcock have many of the same habitat needs as grouse, their numbers have followed a similar downward trend throughout much of their range, says Dessecker. The long-term averages for central and eastern United States subpopulations have shown a loss of about 1 percent per year since 1968. Brood counts were also down, with lower numbers in the bird's central range. The only good news with woodcock is that the 10-year average has remained relatively stable. However, the population of the long-billed bird has followed a downward trend over the last 30 years.
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Author:Hart, David
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2010
Words:2402
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