For those of us who spend our time looking at birds, fall’s arrival is met with unbridled enthusiasm. The drama that ensues during migration is second to none. As skies come alive with a joyous ruckus of calls, honks and whirring wings, we crane our necks and squint our eyes to witness one of the greatest spectacles on Earth.
It’s sky-gazing season, and birds of every feather are on the move. Find out what you can expect from the fall flight, the science behind duck numbers, and how to make the most of every amazing minute.
Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey signals below-average fall flight
Every year, hunters and birders across North America await the Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat survey. Affectionately known as “BPOP,” the survey results provide a glimpse into what the fall flight will look like. Species counts and reports on habitat conditions for 2022 suggest fewer birds will be taking to the skies than in the past, following multiple years of prairie drought.
Total populations were estimated at 34.2 million breeding ducks in the traditional survey area. This is 12 per cent lower than the 2019 estimate of 38.9 million and four per cent below the long-term average (since 1955). After two years without a BPOP survey — field work in 2020 and 2021 was cancelled due to COVID-19 — it’s not the news hunters and birders were hoping for. However, habitat conservation efforts conducted by organizations like Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) are setting the stage for waterfowl success in seasons to come.
“It’s not surprising that breeding season duck population size is lower than pre-pandemic levels,” says Stuart Slattery, national manager of DUC’s Institute for Wetland and Waterfowl Research. “We don’t expect many ducklings to be recruited when conditions are that dry. But duck populations are resilient to these environmental fluctuations and drought helps to rejuvenate wetlands, so we typically expect populations to rebound when water returns, as long as the habitat base remains.”
Included in the BPOP report are breeding population estimates for 10 common species, which reveal some bright spots. Blue-winged teal, for example, were recorded at much higher numbers than previous years’ counts — and above the long-term average (see how your favourite species fared in the chart below).
For a deeper dive into the results, check out the recording of a special livecast featuring waterfowl experts from Ducks Unlimited in Canada and the United States where they share their expectations for waterfowl numbers and hunting prospects: ducks.ca/duckforecast
BPOP: Behind the scenes
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, representatives from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) missed two years of field work. This created a gap in research that had been building for the past 65 years. However, in May and June, they were once again able to climb into airplanes and helicopters and gather in crews on the ground to examine waterfowl breeding habitat and populations over millions of square kilometres across Canada and the northern United States.
DUC research biologist Howie Singer assisted the CWS/USFWS with the annual air-ground surveys in western Manitoba and eastern Saskatchewan. He let Conservator in on how the survey work is completed.
“We completed surveys on approximately 30, 29-kilometre segments that are 400 metres wide and part of the annual BPOP survey. I was a part of a crew with six people, and we worked in teams of two. Each team would survey unique segments each day. After the aerial survey, we would proceed with our ground-based surveys.
One person in the vehicle served as the driver and observer on one side, while the passenger acted as the observer on the other side as well as the data recorder. We would drive the transect and record both wetlands and ducks from the road. If wetlands or ducks could not be observed completely, we would walk out to get an accurate count.
If any wetlands weren’t identified on the maps, we added them to maps and to the supporting database so they would be included in the year’s count as well as subsequent surveys. These data are used to inform visibility correction factors for birds that are missed during the aerial survey portion of the surveys, hence the name air-grounds.”
Following the science
The BPOP survey provides a sound, scientific foundation for conservation planning. Results help inform where resources are invested to create the greatest positive impacts on waterfowl populations. Organizations like DUC are fortunate to have this deep well of historical monitoring data and decades of experience to draw from.
Under the expert tutelage of Mitch Weegman, PhD, at the University of Saskatchewan, additional research led by some of North America’s brightest post-secondary students is adding to our understanding of waterfowl populations. One student-led project is seeking to quantify the environmental drivers of pintail population decline (the 2022 BPOP showed a 21 per cent decrease from 2019 and a 54 per cent decrease from the long-term average). Other students are working on projects about the population dynamics of Atlantic brant, as well as lesser snow geese and Ross’s geese.
Learn more about the students, their research and the DUC Endowed Chair in Wetland and Waterfowl Conservation at ducks.ca/endowedchair
Share your bird watching moments
Whether you’re enjoying the best of fall from inside a duck blind or from a park bench, share your migration moments with us. Tell us what birds you see, and where, by recording your sightings using the DUC Migration Tracker project hosted on iNaturalist.Sign Up