Numbers looking better for the birds

July 9, 2016

After a couple of down years, this coming season shows promise for anyone interested waterfowl — whether they’re watching them or hunting them.

The annual population survey of waterfowl breeding pairs by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife found that numbers have increased this year following a three-year decline.

Melanie Weaver, waterfowl biologist for CDFW, said this year’s wetter weather contributed to the rise in waterfowl in the region.

“The late, abundant spring rains were a real boost to the habitat this year,” Weaver said in a press release. “We expect good production and a larger fall flight this year because of it.”

Flooded rice fields play a huge role in waterfowl migration. Normally, most rice farmers flood fields with water as a decomposition method, rather than burning them off. Those flooded fields attract an abundance of waterfowl — but in the past few years, fewer fields were farmed and fewer flooded as water was scarce.

This year should be better for everyone who cares about waterfowl numbers.

Casey McVay, game warden for the Yuba-Sutter area, said there are many different factors that go into hunter success, but an increase in rice farming might prove to benefit hunters this season.

“If there are more rice fields flooded, it will spread the ducks out more, which will provide the opportunity for more hunters,” McVay said.

Jeff Smith, hunting program coordinator for the California Waterfowl Association, said he was confident there would be more opportunities for hunters.

“This year, it is more likely there will be more acres available for people to hunt,” Smith said.

The change in numbers was significant — for mallards, the breeding population increased by 51.7 percent, from 173,865 to 263,774. The number of total duck species, meaning all species combined, increased by 24.5 percent — from 315,577 to 417,791.

Even though the increase does seem substantial, said Caroline Brady, waterfowl programs coordinator for the California Waterfowl Association, it should be noted that this follows the worst year on record.

“It’s a significant increase from the all-time low of last year,” Brady said.

Brady said that with late spring rain, there was more water to count birds in.

“That really helped with the habitat and the growth,” he said. Weaver also said the survey showed an increase because of the landscape.

“More ducks on the breeding survey is a result of more water on the ground,” Weaver said. “Conditions were more favorable for laying eggs and feeding on bugs.”

The study said that population estimates increased in the Central Valley and 2016 production should be better than in recent years, but there are still challenges for the birds.

“Challenges remain for waterfowl in the Central Valley as urban development and conversion to tree crops in many areas threaten to reduce available upland nesting habitat and increase disturbance,” the study reported.

“These stressors have increased since the establishment of the survey in 1992 and, perhaps correspondingly, declines in most breeding waterfowl species have been observed.”

The population surveys were conducted in the Central Valley from April 26 to May 2, and in northeastern California on May 11-12. The numbers represent population estimates and are for surveyed areas only.

What it means for business

Businesses in the waterfowl hunting market are hoping to see a big year, in terms of more ducks traveling through the area. And Daniel Vaca, a gun salesman at Kittle’s Outdoor and Sport in Colusa, said a better year is expected after last year’s low-mark.

“Just by the looks of it, so far, we have been getting a surge of duck hunters recently that seem to think that there won’t be any issues with getting water down in the valley,” Vaca said.

Vaca said waterfowl hunters are the heart and soul of the Colusa store. He said it is still too early to tell whether or not this season will be much better than last, but he is hopeful.

“All signs lead to the fact that we should have a better year,” Vaca said.