The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

December 9, 2012

Andra Bryan Stefanoni: Limited rain, warm weather mean fewer ducks this winter

By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer

PITTSBURG, Kan. — I will never forget reading an essay by my husband years ago because of the mental image it created for me: one of him as a boy, nose pushed against the fogged glass of his back door before dawn, waiting for his hunting mentor to pick him up for a trip to the duck blind.

Now 38, he’s still that little boy, nose pushed to the glass before dawn. Every year, he anticipates duck hunting season like those who begin decorating for Christmas in September. He eagerly prepares his blind, makes repairs to his equipment and freshens the paint on his decoys, and dreams about ducks.

But for the past two years, the rains haven’t come. The Neosho Wildlife Area at St. Paul relies on flooded pools to attract migratory waterfowl. And the eight-acre wetland my husband created from a family farm field has just a few inches of water.

No water, no ducks.

Texas cousins who joined our family in the blind over Thanksgiving went home empty-handed. For the first time in 10 years, a hunting buddy who comes in from Pennsylvania each December won’t be doing so this year.

And so my husband waits, eyes trained on the passing clouds, muttering aloud about why everyone else is so gosh darn happy about wearing short sleeves and doing yard work on a beautiful, 65-degree Saturday in December.

I, too, wait, salivating over the most recent Twitter posting by Food Republic touting six ideas for dinner tonight starring ... duck. There’s smoked duck breast, poached duck breast, duck burgers, and on and on.

The main ingredient? Duck.

But Monte Manbeck, manager of the Neosho Wildlife Area, told me last Thursday not to worry. He’s been pumping water 24 hours a day from the nearby Neosho River and has water in every pool. As a result, his is one of only three waterfowl areas in the state with water, along with the Marais des Cygnes Wildlife Area near Pleasanton and the Jamestown Wildlife Area in north-central Kansas.

And because of that, it’s drawing hunters from all over the state — Wichita, Kansas City, McPherson.

For local retailers, that’s great news.

But duck numbers are down here, partially because of mild weather. (Why would ducks leave South Dakota if temperatures there remain relatively high and they have the food they need?) Typically, Manbeck has 40,000 to 50,000 mallards this time of year, but he had fewer than 15,000 last week.

The estimated 1,500 hunters who have visited the refuge have harvested an average of about a duck and a half per trip, which is good, but typically this time of year — peak mallard migration — they’ll harvest two, maybe three ducks.

The recent full moon and mild weather have added to the hunting challenge, because ducks aren’t moving much during the day and are feeding at night. Perhaps the arrival of the new moon will change that behavior a bit.

I guess we’ll just have to keep watching the skies and reading the recipes.

Until then, hamburger, anyone?

FOLLOW ANDRA STEFANONI on Facebook at facebook.com/andrajournalist and on Twitter @AndraStefanoni.