By KYLE WINTERSTEEN
Prairie Pothole Region wetlands have enjoyed a five-year boom, nourished by significant spring rains and heavy winter snowfall. Thus bountiful food and nesting opportunities were afforded to ducks, which in turn set breeding population survey records in 2011, 2012 and 2014.
But the wet streak couldn’t last forever. This spring, returning mallards will find more typical wetland conditions.
“It was a fairly mild winter with below-average precipitation,” said Mike Buxton, waterfowl program coordinator for Delta Waterfowl. “If there’d been a drought last summer, we’d be in trouble, but the PPR was so wet that there’s ample carryover water present. I don’t think duck production will approach the past few dynamite years, but we should manage an average spring — especially if we get timely rains through May.”
Here’s a breakdown of early wetland conditions in key duck-production areas:
By late January, Alberta was in a degree of trouble.
“The weather was warm and there was almost no snow on the ground,” said Matt Chouinard, waterfowl program manager for Delta Waterfowl. “I had my concerns.”
However, since that time Alberta has received several much-needed squalls, including a mid-March blizzard resulting in 10 inches of snow.
“A good little storm like that can actually make a real difference for duck production,” Chouinard explained. “Alberta’s water conditions aren’t unbelievable this spring, but they’re sufficient. It should be a normal production year.”
Neighboring Saskatchewan was off to a better start: Colder and with a few inches of snow on the ground during Chouinard’s late January visit.
“While installing Hen Houses in key production areas, I observed numerous wetlands that extended clear up to the surrounding cattails — that’s a good sign,” Chouinard said. “Often after a dry summer and fall, seasonal wetlands are surrounded in a bowl of dirt or completely empty.”
Overall, Saskatchewan’s snowpack is less significant than recent years, but the province’s wetlands continue to benefit from residual water.
“It should have a decent year for duck production, especially if wet get a little rain in the coming weeks,” Chouinard said.
Manitoba’s nesting habitat is less susceptible to annual variation, as its wetlands are disproportionately permanent and semi-permanent. Given that the province experienced flood warnings for much of the summer, its wetland basins are in solid shape.
“There should be pretty good water throughout the breeding season,” Buxton said. “It would take a few rain-free months to dry those basins. I’ve also observed seasonal wetlands taking shape during visits to the southwest corner, but they’re less plentiful this year. All considered, it should be a typical production year for Manitoba. The mallards have begun to arrive.”
North Dakota might be considered on the bubble in terms of duck production. While its vast temporary wetlands are currently in good shape, a minimal snowpack means there’s precious little water in reserve.
“If we don’t get rain during the rest of April and May, I fear the wetlands will contain significantly less water for nesting ducks,” Buxton said. “I’m already not seeing the massive stretches of sheet water like we had last year. Initial nesting attempts should be unaffected, but renesting efforts — which made a lot of ducks these past few years — are another story. If the wetlands begin to dry up, hens won’t have the invertebrates available to recharge nutritionally. And diminished wetlands would also cut way down on available habitat for brood survival.”
Still, if North Dakota receives even an average amount of spring precipitation, expect a normal year for duck production.
“I’m not all that concerned just yet,” Buxton said. “The wetlands are in reasonable shape, since many held water to begin with, and the ducks have begun to arrive. All species have been accounted for.”