Oct. 31 is an important day at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. It is not the day that the refuge staff wear pink leggings and dress up as flamingos – although that would be a great rumor to get started. It’s the refuge’s birthday, and this year St. Marks turned 91 years old. For me, though, it is the day that I do the first duck survey of the season.
This is the sixth year I have done a Halloween survey. I’ve gone a day early or late a few times because of weather, but I have stuck with an end-of-October start to the winter duck surveys. The first survey of the year is generally an easy gig, because most ducks haven’t come down. In 2017 I had 465 ducks, but since then, the totals have ranged from 106 birds up to 220 birds, which makes for easy counting in good early fall weather. This is something to which I look forward.
So, Halloween morning found me counting the dawn flight of wood ducks on the north levee at Stony Bayou II. I had only five ducks, a slow and inauspicious start to the survey, but things picked up as I swung around the pool. I found blue-winged teal, ring-necked ducks, northern pintails and 14 more wood ducks. Things were looking up.
It was an overcast, warmish day. I scanned Stony Bayou I, but found nothing. A few days earlier, refuge staff had seven early snow geese there.
The ducks on East River Pool were mostly staying in the back of the pool. Even with a scope, I struggled to identify them at over a half-mile distance. Occasionally, they would fly, making it easier. There were teal species: pintail, Gadwall and ring-necks.
The majority of the ducks were on the north and south ends of Mounds Pool III. There were hordes of blue-winged and green-winged teal, redheads, Gadwall, wigeon, pintail and a single northern shoveler.
Most of my route is on levees, allowing me to avoid Lighthouse Road, where heavy equipment was being used for road maintenance. I did have to drive to Lighthouse Pool, but a 25-ton Caterpillar excavator was clearing roadside vegetation and had scared away most of the birds. Miraculously, 10 redheads and a canvasback were floating in the shallow water, and the flamingo was unperturbed.
As usual, about three-quarters of the ducks were teal with blue-wings predominating at this early point of the season. The other nine species accounted for 128 ducks with two species, shoveler and canvasback, represented by single birds. The raw numbers are higher than normal, but the species mix is typical of a Halloween survey and shows an early movement by waterfowl, rather than by one or two species.
This early influx of ducks is great for local birders, but it masks an issue with continent-wide waterfowl populations. The 2022 Waterfowl Population Status report shows a 12 percent decrease in duck populations since the last report in 2019. (Annual population surveys had been suspended during the COVID epidemic.) Drought conditions across the main waterfowl breeding areas appear to be a factor in the decrease, but other weather and climate factors also play a role.
An important part of managing our waterfowl populations is the coordinated system of private lands protected by conservation easements and public lands belonging to local, state and federal agencies. They make it possible to maintain breeding, migration stopover and wintering areas for waterfowl. The St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge plays a critical role in that system.
So, come down to the refuge and see some ducks. They’re here and more are coming. While you’re at it, support your local refuge in any way that you can: volunteer, pay your entrance fee or shop at the Nature Store. The ducks need the help.
Don Morrow can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.