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Local waterfowl hatch called the best in years ahead of Saturday's regular opener in Minnesota

A group of mallards feeds near the shoreline on a lake just west of Alexandria in mid-September. The regular Minnesota waterfowl opener is Sept. 26. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

Upland birds like pheasants and turkeys have a long list of obstacles standing in their way trying to survive into adulthood.

Factors ranging from predators and weather all come into play, and waterfowl too need certain conditions to have a thriving nesting season. Jason Strege, assistant wildlife manager at the Glenwood Department of Natural Resources, believes everything came together for ducks in the area, leading to a great 2020 spring hatch.

“I was working out west, and any wetland that was quality at all with a little shallower water, a lot of submergent vegetation, a lot of that came on strong in some wetlands, and it might be the best brood production that I’ve seen since I got here,” Strege said. “Not necessarily for geese, although they were really good too, but for duck production. Any quality wetland had two, three, four, five broods on it all summer long.”

Strege has worked in the Glenwood DNR since 2001, so calling this the best brood numbers he has seen since coming to the area has the weight of a relatively long sample size.


A drake wood duck that hasn't quite gotten the vibrant colors that these ducks are known for sits up against the cattails on a small slough near Alexandria on Sept. 10. Wood ducks are a big part of the early-season options for waterfowlers in many parts of Minnesota. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

Osakis’ Colter Fortenberry agrees that production this year was good around the area. Fortenberry hunts ducks and geese from early goose season through the end of the year and saw a lot of birds through his hunting and scouting early this season.

“At least as far as geese go, there were good numbers of birds all over before the early season opener,” Fortenberry said on Sept. 10. “Also, I’ve seen some big bunches of mallards flying around already, so I think they had a good hatch too.”

Local hatch success, or lack thereof, can be a good indicator of what early-season activity might look like for hunters. Local geese, mallards, teal and wood ducks make up a big part of the bag for hunters until temperatures cool down.

Strege worked on projects almost predominantly out west in their work zone this summer and kept a close eye on what wetlands looked like.

“Although we had a dry spring, last fall was so wet,” he said. “We had a lot of brood wetlands on the landscape all the way through June even though we weren’t getting the rain. I think that has been shown to really contribute to good production. If you have your seasonal shallow wetlands on the landscape in that June, early July, that can really up the production.”

It was a perfect combination of water levels that held on for nesting before leveling off to create ideal growing conditions for young birds.

“As the water level fell, I think they dropped fast enough that submergent vegetation then responded, which is better habitat for the broods to survive,” Strege said. “There’s way more insect life in the water for the baby ducks to eat. I think it was both the wet fall that created more standing water for brood ponds and then as the summer went on, the wetland quality really increased with the dropping water levels.”


National breeding population and habitat survey canceled

The COVID-19 pandemic hit wildlife agencies hard in terms of the field work they were able to conduct throughout the spring and summer months.

This was seen everywhere from local agencies like the Glenwood Area DNR all the way to data collection through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The annual Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey produced through aerial flyovers and ground-based sampling has been conducted since 1955. Like so many other things, it was canceled this year due to the pandemic.

In a story produced by Delta Waterfowl, Ken Richkus, chief of the USFWS Division of Migratory Bird Management, cited safety reasons and travel restrictions making many operations impossible as to why the May survey was canceled.

The USFWS, the Canadian Wildlife Service and other state agencies team up to gather data from the waterfowl’s prairie breeding grounds in southern Canada and the northern United States to produce population estimates each year for North American ducks and geese species. That helps agencies set season dates and bag limits on waterfowl.

The USFWS will lean on long-term data and models to predict 2020 spring abundances of waterfowl and habitat conditions to help determine appropriate levels of harvest for the 2021-22 hunting seasons. The 2020 regulations were already set based on the 2019 survey.

The regular duck season in Minnesota in the Central zone, which includes Alexandria and runs east and west between highway 210 as the north border and 212 as the southern border, is from Sept. 26 through Oct. 4. There is a five-day break before the season resumes from Oct. 10 through Nov. 29. Goose season in the Central zone is from Sept. 26 through Oct. 4 and then Oct. 10 through Dec. 30.


Eric Morken is a sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press Newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota, a property of the Forum News Service. Morken covers a variety of stories throughout the Douglas County area, as well as statewide outdoor issues.
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