Ground checks for Friday’s release of the state's first aerial waterfowl survey most certainly came Saturday morning with the first shots of another in a long line of 60-day duck seasons.
The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ Waterfowl Study group annually conducts the survey. The coastal marshes get the most attention, especially acreage south of New Orleans to the mouth of the Mississippi River and the rice fields and marshes from Abbeville west to Grand Chenier, Little Chenier and Cameron, along with a flyover of Catahoula Lake.
And the numbers state waterfowl biologists found were not good — at least not as good as last year. Last week’s total showed 1.54 million ducks in the state compared to the November 2016 estimate of 3.06 million. The study group flew along the coast Monday through Thursday over Catahoula Lake on Tuesday.
Study leader Larry Reynolds said this year's estimate is 23 percent lower than both the long-term and five-year average of 2 million ducks.
What might have gone uncounted in the report is the influx of ducks across the coast on the passage of a cold front, a northern blast that’s left some Midwest states with below-freezing temperatures.
One report late Wednesday mentioned the move of thousands of ducks, mostly teal, gray ducks and pintails, into the coastal marshes in places where the same folks estimated only hundreds of ducks earlier in the week. This was especially true in the southeastern marshes, mostly in areas east of the Mississippi River.
While below last year’s count, this year’s first estimates hold more promise for early-season success than the 2013 (1.02 million) and 2015 (1.21 million) estimates.
“All species except blue-winged teal, shoveler and scaup were below their long-term November averages, and even those species did not exceed LTA by much,” Reynolds noted in his report Friday.
Reynolds said hunters in marshes south of Calcasieu Lake’s West Cove, the East Cove area on the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge and on Rockefeller Refuge south of La. 82 held solid concentrations of gray ducks.
“Interestingly, more ducks were counted in the brackish marsh and fewer in the agricultural habitats of southwest Louisiana than expected,” Reynolds noted, adding, “In southeast Louisiana, the only concentration of ducks was in the marsh east of Venice, but solid numbers of birds were seen on lines through Delacroix and Biloxi Wildlife Management Area.
“Relatively few ducks, especially ring-necked ducks, were seen on the line through the upper Terrebonne marshes, a habitat that contributes substantially to the southeast estimate in most years,” Reynolds stated.
Also noted was the low count of ducks on Catahoula Lake, mostly because of current low-water levels after August and September flooding contributed to poor habitat across the lake, and an overall decline in submerged aquatic vegetation — duck food — because of flooding and tidal push from two hurricanes.
Reynolds reminded hunters, landowners and waterfowl guide services that he expects reports to vary from this season’s first survey.
"(The report) represents a random sample of approximately 3 percent of the habitat in southwest Louisiana and 1.5 percent in southeast Louisiana,” Reynolds stated. “There are important habitats that are not surveyed, and thus estimates are not intended to account for all ducks. The primary purpose is to provide comparable data across months and years to evaluate changes in abundance, distribution, species composition and habitat use by ducks in our coastal habitats.”
The state’s West and Coastal zones opened Saturday, and the East Zone opens Saturday of this week with all three zones’ first split running through Dec. 3.