GRAND FORKS -- Results from a longstanding spring waterfowl survey showed duck numbers in North Dakota are up 18% from last year, the Game and Fish Department said this week in reporting results from its 73rd annual spring breeding duck survey.

The survey tallied a duck index of nearly 4 million birds, the department said, up from 3.4 million during the 2019 survey.

It wasn't exactly business as usual, but the department was able to complete the survey in May despite the COVID-19 pandemic, said Mike Szymanski, migratory bird management supervisor for Game and Fish in Bismarck. Most waterfowl surveys in North America were canceled this spring, Szymanski said, but Game and Fish was able to make adjustments to continue its 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,” he 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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Mike Szymanski
Mike Szymanski

More water

For the second year in a row, the number of temporary and seasonal wetlands was substantially higher than the previous year, and the spring water index was up 65% from last year, survey results showed. 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 higher than 2019 estimates. Ruddy ducks were up 87%, green-winged teal were at a record high and up 66% and blue-winged teal were up 58%. Mallards were unchanged.

All other ducks ranged from pintails, which were down 2%, to scaup, which were up 40% 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.”

The July brood survey will provide a better idea of duck production and fall hunting prospects, Szymanski said. Hunting success also is influenced by bird movements before and during hunting seasons and weather patterns during the fall migration.