While there has been no shortage of bad news during these uncertain times, there was good news this spring for ducks and hunters across the prairies of North Dakota.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department completed its 73rd annual spring breeding duck survey in May, and results showed an index of nearly 4 million birds, up 18% from last year.

Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird supervisor for Game and Fish in Bismarck, said despite most waterfowl surveys in North America being canceled this spring, the department was able to adjust to continue this long-term data set.

“Crews were turned into single-person crews to make sure there was only one person in a vehicle, and we changed some of the route assignments to accommodate increased driving distances and workloads, but still maintained overlap with our fall wetland survey routes,” Szymanski said. “It was definitely quite a bit more work, and we are grateful that our crew members were up for the challenge.”

This spring’s wetland index was the sixth highest on record, and the breeding duck index was the 13th highest, both are highs since 2014.

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For the second year in a row, the number of temporary and seasonal wetlands was substantially higher than the previous year, as figures show the spring water index is up 65% from last year. The water index is based on basins with water and does not necessarily represent the amount of water contained in wetlands or the type of wetlands represented.

“Not surprisingly, we found really good wetland conditions during this year’s survey,” Szymanski said. “We had an unusually large amount of rain last fall but have really been drying up since, especially in the western half of the state. The eastern half of North Dakota is still incredibly wet, and wetland numbers in the western half of the state are still in pretty good shape despite some drying.”

The breeding population survey results indicate numbers for all primary species, except redheads (down 12%), were stable to up from 2019 estimates. Ruddy ducks were up 87%, green-winged teal were at a record high (up 66%) and blue-winged teal were up 58%. Mallards were unchanged. All other ducks ranged from down 2% (pintails) to up 40% (scaup) from last year’s numbers. All species, except pintails, which were down slightly, were well-above the 72-year average.

“Conditions that we have seen since 1994 seem to be the new normal with more precipitation and higher duck numbers,” Szymanski said. “This year’s ranking of our breeding population is a pretty good sign as our 13 highest duck counts are all within the last 26 years. When you start getting around the 4 million range, you are talking about very, very good duck numbers. So, it is good to see us getting back to the middle of the road for the new normal.”

Later this July, the brood survey numbers will give waterfowl biologists a better idea of duck production and insight into expectations for fall, Szymanski said, though hunting success is also influenced by bird movements before and during hunting seasons, and weather patterns during the fall migration.

Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at dleier@nd.gov.

Doug Leier
Doug Leier