By Gerald Almy - email@example.com
This year's duck hunting prospects look outstanding, based on breeding ground surveys conducted by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. This annual survey, started in 1955, showed a record number of 48.6 million breeding ducks. That's an increase of seven percent over 2011, when 45.6 million ducks were counted.
The increase in duck numbers was broad, with eight out of 10 duck species increasing. Amazingly, all-time high populations were reached by three species.
More mallards were counted than in any year since 1999 -- some 10,602,000. This is up from 9,183,000 the year before, or a 15 percent increase. The number is 40 percent above the long-term average for mallards.
Blue-winged teal rose 94 percent from their long-term average, with 9.242 million birds counted. This is three percent more than in 2011.
A total of 3.586 million gadwall were estimated, a 96 percent increase from their long-term average and 10 percent more than in 2011.
Wigeon numbered 2.145 million. This is more than last year, by three percent. Unfortunately, though, it's down 17 percent from the long-term average.
Pintail numbered 3.473 million, down 22 percent from last year and down 14 percent from the long-term average.
Shoveler numbered 5.018 million. This is a whopping 111 percent above their long-term average, and eight percent above 2011's figure.
The population of scaup was 5.239 million birds. That's 21 percent better than last year and four percent above the historical average.
Green-winged teal numbered 3.471 million, 74 percent above their long-term average and 20 percent up from last year.
Canvasback didn't crack the million mark, with 760,000 birds estimated. That is still 33 percent better than the historical average, however, and 10 percent higher than 2011.
All told, duck populations for these major species were up seven percent from 2011 and 43 percent from the long-term average.
This is all good news, but unfortunately, the drought has hurt habitat conditions since the spring survey was conducted. Pond counts, which indicate how much habitat is available for the ducks, were down 32 percent from 2011.
That means fewer baby ducks will be born this year. But still, with so many adult ducks present, hunting should be excellent this fall.
In the Atlantic Flyway, where Virginia lies, last year was unusually warm. Colder weather should help bring more birds south from the northern U.S. and Canada this year. And hopefully that migration will take place earlier, allowing more hunting opportunities for the visiting fowl.
Most species showed good numbers in the Atlantic region. Black duck numbers actually increased 11 percent. Ring-necked ducks were estimated to be the second-most common species in the Atlantic Flyway this year, behind mallards.
Most duck seasons in the Shenandoah Valley will open in October and November, but teal hunters will get an early chance to try for their favorite quarry. A special season runs from Sept. 17-29 for hunters east of Interstate 95. West of I-95 the season runs from Sept. 24-29.
Blue winged teal will be most plentiful during this early hunting, and with this year's population at 9.242 million birds, success should be excellent. Some green winged teal will also be available on ponds, lakes and rivers during this early hunt, but most of the bag will be made up of blue-wings.
Green-wings tend to migrate later and will be more common during the regular duck seasons in October and November. The combined limit for this September hunt will be four teal. Be extra careful identifying birds before you shoot, though. Only teal are legal during this special season.
Also opening in September are resident Canada geese. This season runs from Sept. 1-25. The limit is a generous 10 per day.
The high limit is because many landowners don't like geese on their property and not enough hunters are going after the birds to keep their numbers down. Resident Canada geese are particularly abundant in central, eastern and southern parts of the state, but there are definitely enough present here in the Shenandoah Valley to make for an interesting hunt on ponds or on the Shenandoah River itself.
-- Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.