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Washburn: Waterfowl seasons provide uncertainties
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Washburn: Waterfowl seasons provide uncertainties

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Wetland drought

A mallard duck walks across a drought-stricken marsh.

Iowa’s fall waterfowl seasons kick off Sept. 1 with a special 16-day, teal-only duck hunt. The bonus teal event is followed by a dizzying series of split hunting seasons occurring across the state’s North, Central and Southern zones. In North Iowa, a two-day youth duck and goose season is scheduled for Sept. 25-26. The regular North Zone goose season begins Sept. 25, and the regular all species duck season commences Oct. 2.

Here today gone tomorrow, migratory waterfowl exist within highly mobile, dynamic populations. The most reliable information regarding continental duck and goose numbers has been distributed to hunters via an annual government report detailing the results of widespread pond counts and extensive waterfowl breeding surveys. Prepared through the cooperative efforts of the Canadian Wildlife Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the annual assessments have been suspended during the past two years due to COVID 19.

Wetland mudflat

Receding water levels have reduced many Iowa marshlands to virtual mudflats.

But although state and provincial duck counts have been placed on hold, more is known about spring and summer habitat conditions. A large percentage of North America’s duck populations originate in the prairie wetlands of southern Canada, North and South Dakota, and eastern Montana. A critical component of abundant fall duck flights, favorable spring and summer water levels are key to waterfowl production. Unfortunately, most of the prairie pothole region has been plagued by months of drought or near drought conditions. Sparse snow cover resulted in meager spring runoff, providing temporary potholes with low or no water during spring nesting. Production – especially for prairie dependent species like mallards, pintails, shovelers, blue-winged teal, redheads, and canvasbacks – will be negatively impacted. However, with a two-year gap in breeding duck surveys, no one can say to what extent.

In Iowa, current conditions range from abnormally dry to extreme drought across much of the state according to U.S Drought Monitor Curtis Riganti. In northern Iowa’s 35-county prairie wetland region, drought conditions vary from severe to extreme, according to the Aug. 19, U.S. Monitor map. Smaller potholes and many of the region’s larger wetlands are dry. Some wetlands are currently reduced to wet mud flats or contain “puddles in the middle” which, although attractive to migrating ducks and shorebirds, will be inaccessible to hunters. By contrast, a handful of larger marshes still contain low, but adequate, water levels. Due to abnormally large watersheds, a limited number of public marshlands remain in near ideal condition. Recent rainfall -- occurring across portions of the region during mid and late August -- has assisted in maintaining or increasing water levels on some areas. In other words, wetland conditions are all over the chart. Preseason scouting will be key to success.

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Mallard duck

 In a marsh normally covered with water, a mallard duck now walks in mud.

The obvious question is what can Iowa waterfowlers expect for the upcoming season? At this point, no one can say. Although habitat conditions on many areas are far from ideal, they can change within hours. A single, well-timed downpour could revitalize local wetland landscapes overnight. We’ve seen it before. The severe drought cycle of 2011 and 2012 were far worse than the one we’re enduring now.

For those of us sitting smack in the middle of the Mississippi Flyway, there are always plenty of uncertainties. As is the case every year, the ultimate success of the duck season will largely depend on developing fall weather patterns and upon the migratory whims of the birds themselves.

Lost duckbill

The drought-stricken wetland reveals a hunter’s long lost push-pole duckbill.

Last item: Since this year’s fall flight is likely to contain an increased percentage of adult [previously educated] birds, hunters might want to put some extra effort into refurbishing the duck blind, touching up the decoys, and practicing their calling. You might also want to adjust your alarm and plan to arrive at your favorite hunting spot a couple of hours early. Unless regional conditions enjoy dramatic improvements, hunter competition will be exceptionally keen.

Enjoy more wildlife tales online at Washburn’s Outdoor Journal at iawildlife.org/blog.

“If you don’t like the Iowa weather; wait five minutes and it will change.”

-Well known saying

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