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.
2014 North Carolina Mid-Winter Waterfowl Survey Summary
The 2014 mid-winter waterfowl survey was conducted from January 5th – January 26th. 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. The survey this year was extremely prolonged due to unforeseen scheduling conflicts and weather related delays. An extremely prolonged survey can be problematic due to birds redistributing themselves during the survey period and especially this year because of an extreme period of cold weather during the survey. Bird redistribution can increase the possibility of double counting and extreme icing conditions can force birds out of smaller, shallow wetlands into larger bodies of water where they can be counted more easily. When compared to the 2013 survey, nearly all dabbling duck species were counted at higher levels while results for diving ducks were mixed. For example, notable increases were observed for mallards, black ducks, green-winged teal, pintails and redheads (Table 1). In contrast, counts were down slightly for gadwall, scaup and ring-necked ducks. We note that mallard numbers were much higher when compared to their recent 10-year and long-term average. Over 5,000 mallards were observed in the Pee Dee River survey units and we suspect that the large number observed is related in part to the extreme cold weather and icing conditions that occurred prior to and during the survey day. Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding private areas continues to be the core area for concentrations of dabbling ducks. For example, 94% of green-winged teal, 88% of wigeon, 86% of pintails and 56% of gadwall and were observed in this area.
Table 1. 2014 mid-winter waterfowl survey results for selected species.
% change from 2013
% change from 10 year average
% change from 64 year average