By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
The snowstorm that skirted just north of the state recently should be good news for Alabama’s duck hunters.
The waterfowl seasons in Alabama are always weather-dependent. If it’s cold and snowy north of us, the birds will migrate in significant numbers into Alabama. Without the cold or precipitation to cover their food sources, the birds won’t make it this far south.
Seth Maddox, Migratory Gamebird Program Coordinator with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division, said duck numbers should be increasing soon even though the numbers were down when the annual aerial survey took place the week before the season opened.
“We were down a little bit on our preseason counts,” Maddox said. “We had a few cold fronts and a lot of rain. That spread the birds out a lot. I think it pushed some of the early migrators further south.
“That left us with a decent amount of birds, but not a good number for opening weekend. On opening weekend, people killed birds but it wasn’t a great opener. When the season opened back up, it got better. Most of the birds are just a little north of us. I hope with another cold front or two, it will push birds into Alabama. We got a small push from that snowstorm, but I hope we get a larger push soon.
Maddox said the long-term weather forecast bodes well for waterfowl hunters in Alabama.
“It’s shaping up to be similar to last year,” he said. “They’re predicting several disturbances up in the Arctic region with some polar vortexes, which will give us some cold weather. Last year, we had some sub-freezing temperatures, below average temperatures, for a week or so throughout the season. I think that’s going to end up giving us a season similar to last season.”
That would be great news for waterfowlers, considering the harvest for the 2017-2018 season was up 85 percent over the similar period a year earlier.
“That’s a significant increase,” Maddox said. “We had about 14 days during the season where temperatures stayed below freezing. That cold weather and snow north of us really pushed birds into Alabama.”
Maddox said the wood duck harvest last season was especially high, which means a good many woodies came from the north.
“The cold weather pushed lots of wood ducks down,” he said. “We get some migration of wood ducks from northern states every year. Sometimes our wood ducks will move further south, but most of the time they hang tight here in Alabama.
“What we do see, when we see a lot of wood duck migrants from the north, a lot of our males will pair up with northern females. The males will follow the females back to their breeding grounds in the spring because the females go back to the same breeding grounds every year.”
Maddox said the banding program that the WFF conducts annually on wood ducks gives him the data needed to come to those conclusions.
“A lot of our male wood ducks get killed north of us,” he said. “For example, I had one that I banded in Jackson County a couple of years ago that was killed in Ontario (Canada) earlier this year. We had one of our males killed in Minnesota as well.”
Back to the preseason survey, the survey team looks for dabblers (mallards, gadwall, teal) and divers (canvasbacks, redheads, scaup) during the flyovers.
Gadwalls led the count with 12,000 observed statewide, although the survey covers only a small portion of the state. The mallard count totaled 1,500, followed by 1,000 green-winged teal. The total dabbler count was 15,651.
The diver count turned out to be a pleasant surprise with 7,000 birds counted, which is higher than the five-year average.
“There were a bunch of canvasbacks here early,” Maddox said. “Ringnecks led the way, as they usually do. We also had scaup and redheads.
“The migrant geese don’t show up until the middle of December, so you might be able to get a Christmas goose here soon.”