2012-06-29 "Breeding population of ducks down" by Todd R. Hansen from "Tri-County Newspapers"
Not every plane flying low and at a flagging speed of 100 to 115 mph is dropping seed or spraying fields.
In late April and early May, California Department of Fish & Game was in the air over the Sacramento Valley and other parts of the state counting ducks as part of its annual waterfowl breeding population survey.
The results are in, and the overall breeding population — a combination of pairs and drakes — is down.
However, the number of mallards are up 5 percent, and the habitat areas are good, so officials are looking for an above-average brood.
"Surveys indicated an increase in mallard abundance and habitat conditions were good in most of northeastern California and good throughout the Central Valley, so we expect above-average production for all waterfowl species," Waterfowl Program Biologist Melanie Weaver said in a statement.
The total number of all species decreased from 558,600 last year to 524,500 this year, largely because of a decline in gadwall and cinnamon teal populations, the state agency reported.
This survey result is 11 percent below the long-term average, which is calculated from surveys starting in 1992, although surveys actually started in 1955.
The breeding population of mallards increased from 314,700 in 2011 to 381,900 this year. Mallard numbers are above their long-term average, the state reported.
The survey areas include wetland and agricultural habitats in the Sacramento Valley, northeastern California, the San Joaquin Valley, the Suisun Marsh, the Napa-Sonoma marshes, the San Joaquin Delta and some foothill areas.
The duck populations in the Sacramento Valley, which includes Colusa, Glenn and Tehama counties, was down slightly with 105,482. The mallard population was up at 85,641.
The survey is conducted in planes, with helicopters coming in to sample areas after the original count is completed. Any difference in the counts is calculated as an adjustment.
"It is not easy, but the planes are able to go pretty slow: 90 to 100 knots (103-115 mph)," Weaver said. "But that is why we also have a helicopter that comes in."
The survey is not only important to track the duck population as a natural resource, but is also used in setting the length and bag limits for the fall and winter hunting season.
"DFG survey information, along with similar data from other Pacific Flyway states, is used by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service when setting hunting season frameworks for regulations in California and other Pacific Flyway states," Weaver said.
Most of California's wintering duck populations originate from Alaska and Canada, and the results of those federal surveys should be available in July. The terms of the hunting season are generally set in August.
So a survey that holds promising waterfowl production is viewed as a plus for hunters, bird watchers and the casual recreationalist.
"The more you have the better off you are," Weaver said.
The state and federal surveys, however, cannot predict the return of the male falcated duck to the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge.
It is estimated that more than 10,000 people — some from international locations and others from around California and the country — came to the area to see the duck.
It is an Asian species in the teal family, but is believed to have come to the Colusa area from Alaska.