2015 Mid-Winter Waterfowl Survey

In January of each year, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, with assistance from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, conducts an aerial mid-winter waterfowl survey. The mid-winter waterfowl survey is a nationwide effort to survey waterfowl in major winter concentration areas, and occurs in all 4 flyways. In the Atlantic Flyway, the survey occurs from Maine to Florida, and is designed to determine population trends of wintering waterfowl and their distribution in the flyway. For some species, like tundra swans, it is the primary source of information on abundance or trends in the population, because they are either difficult to survey on their breeding grounds using airplanes or they nest in remote and inaccessible Arctic areas.

In North Carolina, the survey is limited primarily to coastal areas with the exception of selected locations along the lower Pee Dee River. The graphs below represent the results from the mid-winter waterfowl survey in North Carolina for selected species from 1961 to the present. When reviewing these graphs, keep in mind the following:

• The survey is coastal oriented.
• The survey counts waterfowl on “open-water” areas. Because of the difficulty in counting waterfowl in wooded habitats (beaver ponds and swamps) these areas are not surveyed well and those species preferring these habitats (wood ducks, mallards) are missed when they occur in these locations.
• Because the survey occurs only once per year in a relatively short time period, the survey provides only a “snapshot” of waterfowl numbers in the state during the winter.
• Ice conditions, when they occur, likely influence results in some years. Extensive icing conditions force waterfowl out of small, isolated wetlands into larger water bodies. When this occurs, they are more easily observed and as a result estimates can be inflated compared to most years under normal weather conditions.

The 2015 mid-winter waterfowl survey was conducted from January 6th – January 22nd. During this low-level aerial survey, all waterfowl were counted in 38 discrete geographic units. This coastal oriented survey covered all major water bodies from approximately Mackay Island in Currituck County to the New River in Onslow County. Several inland lakes as well as a portion of the Yadkin/Pee Dee River system were also surveyed. When compared to the 2014 survey, nearly all duck species were counted at lower levels (Table 1). However, 2014 counts were very high due to extremely cold weather and icing experienced during the 2013-14 fall/winter period. Although counts for many ducks were reduced from last year, most species were similar or even above the most recent 10-year average. With the exception of mallards, black ducks and canvasbacks, most species are well above their long-term average. Notable observations this year include large numbers of redheads in the Core Sound area and increasing numbers of tundra swans in Northampton, Halifax and Edgecombe counties. Further, increasing numbers of gadwall have been recorded in recent years with this year’s count 445% above the long-term average. Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding private areas continues to be the core area for concentrations of dabbling ducks. For example, 95% of wigeon, 82% of green-winged teal, 62% of pintails and 49% of gadwall and were observed in this area.

Table 1.  2015 mid-winter waterfowl survey results for selected species.


2015 total

% change from 2014

% change from 10 year average

% change from 64 year average






Black Duck








+ 102%

+ 445%




+ 70%

+ 181%

Green-winged teal




+ 204%






       All dabblers














- 92%






Ring-necked duck









+ 124%

Ruddy duck





      All divers





Snow goose





Canada goose





Tundra swan





      All waterfowl
(including coots)