Week 23. Paul Padding: US Fish and Wildlife Service
If mallards and black ducks were dinner guests, the mallard might barge on in and start gorging on the meal, while the black duck might enter the room, take a discerning look around, and only after deciding everything is up to his standards, politely sit down for a meal.
With feeding habits like that, it’s no surprise that over the last half century the mallard elbowed its way in on black duck habitat, and the black duck population became thinner and thinner. What is surprising at least to many hunters is that those trends may be reversing.
I learned about these trends from Paul Padding, who is the long-time Atlantic Flyway Representative of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). He has served as a waterfowl biologist since 1991 in the Migratory Bird Program at USFWS. Paul helps set federal limits, advises states on waterfowl harvest regulations and helps develop and conduct long-term studies and conservation programs to help manage the populations.
I recently caught up with Paul who told me about some of the long-term trends in the waterfowl populations that he’s witnessed. Thankfully, the black duck population has stabilized to the point that USFWS will recommend a two-duck bag limit this year, and surprisingly, the resilient mallard may be plateauing.
Through decades of waterfowl management, Paul has also picked up on some seasonal migration patterns that hunters may notice intuitively but Paul and his colleagues have documented.
Below are some my questions in bold, followed by his answers.
What’s your role at USFWS and what does it mean to be Atlantic Flyway Representative?
I’m the USFWS's migratory bird liaison with 17 state agencies in eastern US and six provincial agencies in eastern Canada that are members of the Atlantic Flyway Council. Liaison means that I work with state and provincial biologists, other USFWS biologists, Canadian Wildlife Service biologists, and sometimes NGOs to facilitate coordination of migratory bird monitoring, management, and research activities in the Atlantic Flyway.
I do get out to play in the field every now and then to help conduct breeding population surveys and to get my hands on ducks to band them. The duck banding is usually invitations from state biologists that take pity on me and take me out!
Is most of the field work banding and surveying?
Well there are several different programs for banding and surveying, some of which we help with.
There is "pre-hunting season" banding that occurs in late August and early September for birds like black ducks and green wing teal. It’s done mostly in Canada by their Wildlife Service and provincial biologists, but it’s funded in large part by the Atlantic Flyway states and the US Fish & Wildlife Service.
Then there’s wood duck banding, that is mainly done by states but also by some FWS refuge biologists. That goes on from Florida to Maine, in all of the states.
We also have the Northeast states which band ducks in August and early September — mostly mallards but also some black ducks. For the last 5-6 years, states have been doing a late winter (February and March) banding program too for mallards and black ducks.
The purpose is to have two seasons to have data from — from just before the beginning of hunting season through the end of the hunting season, and then again from just after hunting season until the breeding season is over and the young-of-the-year birds are flying — so that we have a better idea about survival in both time periods.
How about the surveying?
We conduct several waterfowl surveys every year in the Atlantic Flyway. One is an aerial survey of breeding waterfowl in eastern Canada and Maine that is done by the Canadian Wildlife Service and the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Also, the Atlantic Flyway states from Virginia north do a survey of breeding waterfowl from the ground.
Then there's the mid-winter survey, which was flown in the Atlantic Flyway for more than 60 years. But as of last year, we discontinued the mid-winter survey except for Atlantic brant and tundra swans. That’s because we rely on mid-winter survey numbers to set the hunting seasons for those two species, but for all of the other species, the surveys were interesting to have but were not used in management, and as budgets have tightened up, we’ve had to decide what is interesting vs what we need to do management.
Also, some of the states had fallen by the wayside in recent years. Florida hasn’t done a mid-winter survey in more than a decade, and New York has dropped out too, and those are a couple of pretty important areas. So, the survey was no longer covering the whole flyway.
As an angler, I think in terms of a calendar of "hatch charts." What is the sequence of winter migration patterns for various waterfowl? (i.e., blue-winged in September through late-season canvasback migrations). What are some seasonal cues you look for and anticipate?
At least the first migrants almost seem to be on a clock or on a schedule. For those birds it doesn’t seem to be related to weather patterns so it's probably based on photoperiod.
More than half or up to three-quarters of the Atlantic population of Canada geese that breed on the Ungava Peninsula end up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The longtime waterfowl biologist at Maryland DNR was Larry Hindman until he retired recently, and he says the first of these Canadas arrive on September 19, plus or minus a day or two. Now that doesn’t mean that half a million get there on September 19, but it does mean the first migrants get there on the clock.
When it doesn’t get cold, a lot more will hang out further north. When it’s very mild, you can tell that the largest wave doesn’t start showing up until mid-December. The weather does matter, but mainly when it’s really weird weather.
On the return trip, they leave from the Eastern Shore in late February to early March. When they get up to their breeding grounds in early May, if it’s snow-covered, they need to hold out and wait it out before they breed, and hope it melts. If they have to wait it out too long, we’re going to have a bust year and the breeding won’t be as successful.
But those early Canadas, that’s a group that has really demonstrated being on a schedule.
As far as ducks, the ones that that arrive late in the fall are often the first to leave in spring, and vice versa. Blue-wing teal arrive very early, because they winter in southern North America and Central and South America, farther south than most other ducks. They’ll be among the last to leave in the spring.
Pintails are fairly early migrants, but leave early, so they’re the exceptions. Dabblers arrive in mid-October in good numbers, and keep coming well into November. Sea ducks are later, and the canvasback is one of the latest fall migrants. They don’t really start arriving sometimes till December, and might not reach their peak until January.
Which species of migratory waterfowl are thriving in the Atlantic Flyway? Which ones are you concerned about? Of the ones you're concerned about, what would help those populations?
Most are doing OK. One I would single out as thriving is the tundra swan. We first introduced a hunting season in 1984, and at the time the population was 80,000. We instituted a management plan that has a threshold of a three-year average of 80,000 or more — we can have a hunting season in North Carolina and Virginia if the population stays above that threshold. The population has grown steadily over the last 30 years, and now last year we reached a point when the three-year average exceeds 110,000, which is the threshold that we agreed upon to let North Carolina and Virginia raise their number of tundra swan hunting permits by 25%. That’s a big deal since it’s a trophy bird, highly valued by hunters — it’s an enjoyable milestone to reach.
On the downside, you’ll probably be surprised to hear me say this, but it’s mallards. Eastern mallards have been on the decline for 10-15 years now, and we’re really kind of at a loss at why that is. Mallards moved in from the West in Canada and were introduced through propagation programs and other releases in eastern US. So, one theory about the decline is that they’re an invasive species that moved into a space originally occupied by black ducks; and they thrived at first but reached their peak 10-15 years or so ago and then started declining. We don't know when the population will stabilize or at what level.
Is there an analogy to trout habitat, that when a species is at its peak in a certain environment, each individual will be smaller and weaker because there are less resources to go around, unless they are managed to the point where individuals have more space to grow bigger?
I don’t think that's the case with eastern mallards, because we have haven’t been able to document substantial loss of mallard habitat, and we’ve hunted them [mallards] pretty hard all along.
How are black ducks doing?
If we went back to 50s and 60s and compared with now, we’d say we have a lot less now. But over the past 25 years, the number of black ducks has held pretty steady. The decline that occurred from the 50s to mid to late 80s really got everybody’s attention.
There was a lawsuit by the humane society against USFWS (the suit alleged that FWS was mismanaging black ducks by allowing them to be over-harvested), and when it was all said and done, the whole thing led to the formation of the Black Duck Joint Venture. This joint venture was charged with developing the science and research for managers to do whatever it takes to grow the black ducks up a bit.
It was started in 1989, and has been pretty successful. My predecessor Jerry Serie did a phenomenal job of getting it going and getting things done. The first change was developing the black duck breeding population surveys, which is a much better tool than the mid-winter survey and became the scientific basis for management.
Over the next 10 years, we developed a range-wide banding program to get information on annual survival rate and harvest rate. That and the breeding population surveys have become the backbone of harvest management.
The next step was a bonafide harvest strategy. There was a problem though, since historically the harvest was split 50/50 between Canada and the US, but we have a lot more hunters in the US. We decided to split it.
So now we have an international harvest strategy based on data from monitoring programs, and an agreement between the US and Canada about harvest management objectives and how to divide the allowable harvest. The strategy prescribes black duck hunting regulations in both countries every year. We put it in place in 2013, and it’s been chugging along ever since.
This upcoming season, we’ll have a two-bird daily bag limit on black ducks, as the harvest strategy's population model advised us to do. We shall see if it has an impact but I’m very excited about it. It’s a real demonstration of putting a data-driven system in place and using it for management, and not being afraid to follow it even when it calls for a significant change.
Any other interesting success stories?
It’s not waterfowl, but I’m really fired up about the Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Initiative. These are birds like the Red Knot, Semipalmated Sandpiper, American Oystercatcher, Whimbrel and Wilson’s Plover.
These populations have been declining, and so a coalition of USFWS, Canadian Wildlife Service, states and various conservation groups came together with the goal of conserving these Atlantic shorebird species. They put together a very ambitious plan involving a lot of partners and stakeholders.
It has an ambitious goal of increasing the populations by 10% in ten years, with a combination of strategies of protecting habitat, minimizing predation and reducing human disturbance.
These are really cool birds that migrate a really long way. The Red Knot will breed way up in the Arctic and winter at the bottom of South America, and they can fly 1500-2000 miles nonstop during their migration.