David J. Wielicki
For the past two hunting seasons I have noticed a substantial decrease in the number of wood ducks wintering in the Lake Marion area. Other hunters across South Carolina have also noticed a general decline in the number of wood ducks wintering on private impoundments and public wetland areas across the state despite excellent wetland conditions. The decrease in wintering wood duck numbers has some biologists and hunters wondering if a 3 bird wood duck bag limit may be too high to maintain in years of low wood duck production.
Low precipitation across the Southeast and the Atlantic coast two years ago resulted in poor wetland conditions during the wood duck breeding season. This had a negative impact on wood duck nesting success and recruitment of young into the population. Last year wetland conditions improved across the area. Nest success in SCWA nest box projects also improved dramatically. However, myself and many other hunters did not see a noticeable increase in wintering wood duck populations. During the 2014 breeding season wetland conditions have been good to excellent in some areas and should result in a good wood duck hatch with increased wintering populations.
Although low wintering wood duck numbers over the past two years could be a local phenomenon, low numbers this winter would add to my concern over wood duck populations. Despite my concern, as a waterfowl biologist I know that local observations have limited value in making waterfowl management decisions. In order to determine if we are harvesting too many wood ducks during waterfowl season increased banding of young wood ducks is needed across the Southeastern and Atlantic states. A strong annual banding effort is the only way to provide the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) with the data needed to determine if annual survival rates are too low to support a 3 bird wood duck limit.
I have expressed my concerns with USFWS Atlantic Flyway Biologist, Paul Padding, who assured me the USFWS plans to closely monitor the effect of harvest on wood duck populations. The wood duck is the number one duck harvested in South Carolina. Last year’s estimated harvest was 72,050 wood ducks which is down from the previous year’s estimated harvest of 116,308 birds. For the past 28 years, SCWA has built, distributed and installed over 22,500 wood duck nest boxes that have hatched over 900,000 wood ducks. Your Association will continue to work diligently to increase wood duck populations and to support sound harvest management decisions that will conserve our wood duck populations for future generations. I look forward to keeping every SCWA member informed on this important waterfowl management issue.