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Will Elliott: Low water levels might hamper duck season

For waterfowl hunters contemplating the upcoming seasons, it might come down to “Cast your fate to the rains.”

That was one of several preseason messages waterfowl biologists and experts in the audience shared during a Waterfowl Hunter Information Meeting Thursday in the newly renovated Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge headquarters building.

Paul Hess, wildlife biologist at the refuge, began with figures showing the 2013 season had the highest numbers of hunter presence and production in 20 years. During nine days of hunting at 37 assigned blind or open sites, 499 hunters harvested a record 1,448 ducks.

He cautioned that the refuge will need substantial rainfall early this autumn to raise water levels in two low pools. “Oneida Pool will be about the same as 2013, but the Mohawk Pool has been drawn down and the Cayuga Pool has water ‘held’”, meaning it is mainly cattails and other plant life.

For bird watchers, Hess reported hatching at both eagle nests at the Mohawk and Cayuga Pools. He added that the exhibits at the headquarters should be in place by October.

Heidi Kennedy, Departement of Environmental Conservation biologist supervising Oak Orchard, Tonawanda and Braddock Bay Wildlife Management areas, began with successes at obtaining galerucella beetles to reduce numbers of invasive purple loosestrife in all three areas.

Kennedy noted poor duck harvests at the start of the 2013 season due to adverse (mostly high-wind) weather. “Hunters did better in areas out of the wind,” she said.

A wood duck box survey showed 83 percent of the boxes were used for nesting and more than 50 percent produced hatches.

But for hunters the main concern will be water levels. Kennedy said that the areas with water drawn down to propagate green growth should be refilled with water by the time the season opens.

Jim Eckler, DEC Region 8 waterfowl biologist based as Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, stressed the need to buy a federal duck stamp, now on sale for $15. A proposal to raise the cost to $25 has the applause of many. Eckler pointed out that the U.S. loses about 80,000 acres of wetlands each year and the cost of buying and maintaining those waterfowl-habitat areas has increased threefold since the stamp fee was raised to $15 in 1991. Program coordinators use 98 percent of stamp funds to purchase and maintain waterfowl-friendly areas.

On the plus side, Eckler noted that duck numbers nationwide, based on aerial surveys, showed a 43 percent increase. However, on the western side of the Atlantic Flyway, the area including Western New York, only mallard populations have increased (about 10 percent) and Canada goose numbers are up slightly.

“All other surveyed duck species for this area are down,” he said, but the declines are not major concerns. During this last winter’s severely cold weather, with 95 percent of Great Lakes waters frozen over, large numbers of waterfowl species suffered a winter kill.

He noted that January and February surveys of Lake Ontario, Niagara River and Lake Erie resulted in about 250,000 waterfowl sightings. “The winter kill was most harmful to diver ducks,” he said of studies done on carcasses that showed not signs of disease; all died of starvation due mainly to ice cover.

The upcoming Waterfowl Youth Hunt date has been moved up to Oct. 4 this year, just before the Deer Youth Hunt.

An earlier start to the 60-day duck season has the duck opener set for Oct. 18, a week before the goose opener on Oct. 25. Federal officials will not allow hunts for migratory Canada geese until the last weekend in October, said waterfowl identification class instructor Pete Cherico.

For details on Youth Hunt registrations, duck-hunt drawings and other waterfowl concerns at Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, call (585) 948-5445.