Zuginruhe – Ducks on the Move

It’s that time of year when changes in climactic conditions and daylight have migratory birds experiencing Zuginruhe, the German term for pre-migratory restlessness exhibited by birds. This could easily describe the restlessness shared by waterfowl hunters awaiting the next major migration.

Here are a few interesting migration facts to ponder as you fight off Zuginruhe, waiting for the next migration event:

*Severe weather will occasionally trigger a mass migration of waterfowl known as a grand passage. In early November 1995, millions of migrating ducks and geese jammed radar systems and grounded flights in Omaha, Neb., and Kansas City, Mo., following a severe blizzard in the Prairie Pothole Region to the north.

*Most waterfowl fly at speeds of 40 to 60 mph, with many species averaging roughly 50 mph. With a 50-mph tail wind, migrating mallards can travel 800 miles during an eight-hour flight. Studies of duck energetics have shown that a mallard would have to feed and rest for three to seven days to replenish the energy expended during this eight-hour journey.

*The fastest duck ever recorded was a red-breasted merganser that attained a top airspeed of 100 mph while being pursued by an airplane. This eclipsed the previous speed record held by a canvasback clocked at 72 mph. Blue-winged and green-winged teal, thought by many hunters to be the fastest ducks, are actually among the slowest, having a typically flight speed of only 30 mph.

*The long-distance flying champions of all waterfowl are black brant, which migrate nonstop from coastal Alaska to their wintering grounds in Baja California—a journey of roughly 3,000 miles—in just 60 to 72 hours. The birds lose almost half their body weight during this marathon flight. Pintails raised in Alaska and winter in Hawaii make a similar trans-Pacific flight of about 2,000 miles.

*Ducks usually migrate at an altitude of 200 to 4,000 feet, but are capable of reaching much greater heights. A jet plane over Nevada struck a mallard at an altitude of 21,000 feet—the highest documented flight by North American waterfowl. And a 1954 climbing expedition to Mount Everest found a pintail skeleton at an elevation of 16,400 feet.

*A pintail banded in 1940 in Athabasca, Alberta, survived until January 1954 when it was shot near Naucuspana, Mexico, roughly 3,000 miles away. If this pintail migrated between these two locations every year throughout its known lifetime, the bird would have logged nearly 80,000 air miles.

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Amazing Waterfowl Facts (DU Magazine)

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How are the Seasons Set?

Most state wildlife agencies set their waterfowl seasons in August, and I often get questions this time of year regarding how season are set. It is a long and complicated process, an annual process that never really stops. It involves a series of scheduled administrative meetings and an on-going process of data gathering. I’ll try to provide a simplified description of the administrative process here.

Waterfowl seasons are not a given each year. A detailed process must be followed to legally provide migratory game bird seasons. In general, the process involves “Early Season” regulations and “Late Season” regulations and begins when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) posts its intention to provide migratory game bird seasons in the Federal Register.

Work on each regulations cycle begins even before the close of waterfowl seasons as the Fish and Wildlife Service Regulations Committee (SRC) meets in January to consider overall waterfowl regulations. The SRC consists of 4 Regional Directors of the USFWS plus a Chairperson. The USFWS has the ultimate responsibility and authority in the U.S. to establish annual hunting seasons for migratory birds. This authority is granted under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The SRC reviews information provided to it each year on regulatory issues and submits recommendations to the Director. The SRC receives guidance from the Division of Migratory Bird Management, the Division of Law Enforcement, the Regional Migratory Bird Coordinators and the four Flyway Councils. The USFWS publishes specific proposals for “Early Seasons” in the Federal Register. Public comments are accepted on these proposals, and a Final Rule published, usually in August.

Mississippi Flyway Council Technical Section at their February 2000 meeting in Little Rock

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Mississippi Flyway Council Technical Section at their February 2000 meeting in Little Rock

The four Flyway Council Technical Sections (made up of state biologists) meet individually in February or early March, and the four Flyway Councils (made up of state administrators) in March to consider changes in “Early Season” hunting regulations for migratory shore and upland game birds (teal, mourning dove, snipe, rail, woodcock, etc.) and discuss previous waterfowl seasons, research and management issues.

States must select their “Early Seasons” within the framework provided by the USFWS (selections are due to the USFWS by August 1). A state can be more restrictive but not more liberal than the federal framework.

In late July, each of the four Flyway Technical Sections and Flyway Councils meet to consider “Late Seasons,” which include the regular duck and goose hunting seasons. “Late Seasons” open as early as the Saturday nearest October 1. During this meeting Technical Section committees review population, habitat, production, banding, and harvest data for the ducks and geese and make season recommendations to the Flyway Councils. Recommendations are in turn, forwarded to Flyway Councils which again forward their recommendations to the Service Regulations Committee (SRC).

The SRC meets in August to consider Flyway proposals, and a Proposed Rule for “Late Seasons” is published in the Federal Register for public comment. States generally, recommend their “Late Seasons” in August based on the frameworks provided by the USFWS (these selections must be received by the USFWS by September 1). Again, a state can be more restrictive but not more liberal than the federal framework.

If all goes as planned new seasons are published and offered to American hunters.

Good luck this season!!

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WPAs Produce Year Round

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the acquisition of the first Waterfowl Production Area (WPA) in the United States’ Prairie Pothole Region (PPR). WPAs are purchased with federal duck stamp funds and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) as part of the national wildlife refuge system. WPAs vary in size from less than one acre to more than 7,400 acres. Collectively, the nation’s 36,000 WPAs have conserved more than 2.5 million acres of wetlands and adjacent uplands.

Nearly 95 percent of the WPAs are located in Montana, Minnesota and the Dakotas. It is estimated that while WPAs and the national wildlife refuge system account for just 2 percent of the landscape in the U.S. portion of the PPR, they produce almost 25 percent of the ducks raised in the region. They also can be outstanding places to hunt in the fall. These public lands are visited by more than 800,000 people each year.

I have been one of those people. Some of my favorite waterfowling haunts are WPAs in North Dakota. I have hunted dozens of them and driven by hundreds. I am annually impressed each spring by the number of ducks these wetlands provide for and equally impressed at how few hunters utilize these wetlands in the fall. I have hunted WPAs in North Dakota for more than eight years and have yet to share one with another hunter. I don’t know if it’s a case of the timing; I tend to hunt North Dakota in late October, the particular area I hunt, the fact that there are so many of them or if many hunters overlook these often small pothole wetlands. Most hunters seem more interested in bigger water or dry fields than my fellow duck hunting companions and I require.

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The stinkin canvasback hole in June 2008

One WPA in particular holds a special place in my memory and heart. We call this particular WPA the “stinkin’ canvasback hole” after the propensity of canvasbacks to use this wetland and the foul-smelling stench that arises from the mud with each step. It was not surprising to see them there because it is always chock full of submergent aquatic vegetation, a canvasback’s favorite diet.

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My first Lab, Buck, at the stinkin canvasback hole

This WPA also happens to be the spot I chose to spread the ashes of my previous yellow Lab, Buck, on a cold October morning in 2003. Over the years we spent many a morning on this wetland taking canvasbacks, bluebills, wigeon, mallards and other ducks. Fond memories abound and a tear still comes to my eye when I think of the morning I met a crimson sunrise, my faithful and ever-eager hunting companion of 12 years’ ashes in hand. I waded into the wetland, spreading his ashes and fertilizing future growth on this magnificent marsh.

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Elvis on his first retrieve

As luck would have it, this very marsh ended up being the site of my current yellow lab Elvis’ first retrieve. And, you probably guessed, it was a beautiful adult canvasback drake.

I still return to the “stinkin’ canvasback hole” every chance I get. The most recent visit was this past June and, sure enough, it was full of ducks — including canvasbacks — a testament to the importance of WPAs.

I have high hopes to be amongst its bulrush and cattail this October, decoys bobbing in the light chop. Since the Central Flyway is in the midst of the Hunters Choice experiment (PDF), canvasbacks still will be legal in North Dakota. I think I’ll pass on that first bull canvasback, offering it to those waterfowlers and hunting dogs that have passed to that big WPA on the other side.

I’ll see you again in October “stinkin’ canvasback hole!”


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