In an epic battle of the elements, cold temperatures are locking horns with drought this weekend as an audience of anxious waterfowlers looks on.

After a lackluster opening week in the mountain/foothills zone, duck and coot season opened in Colorado's northeast zone of the Central Flyway on Saturday, with a timely cold front pushing down from the north that is expected to drive some birds with it. The question is whether the change in the weather will be too little, or if those who weren't out by sunrise Saturday morning are now too late.

"Due to the lack of moisture, many birds may fly quickly past Colorado in search of better conditions," Jim Gammonley, avian research program leader for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said earlier in the week. "This year's drought is so extensive, there aren't a lot of other options, so birds could move far south earlier than usual, or some may even move back north for a while until the weather pushes them back again."

With drought conditions continuing to plague habitat regionwide, early reports from the foothills were spotty. The most promising report mentioned a good number of mallards and wood ducks around Fire stone/Longmont. Some redheads and teal were reported in the Loveland area, but observations decreased to the south.


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With all but Colorado's southeast zone now open for ducks and coots, the consensus is that the migration is only beginning to get underway. How long it lasts remains to be seen.

The good news comes from a report earlier in the summer that indicated a record number of breeding ducks and high production anticipated nationwide. Although breeding habitat conditions declined from previous years, the 2012 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) report on duck breeding populations estimated production in North America at a record high of 48.6 million. That's significantly higher than the 45.6 million ducks estimated in 2011 and 43 percent above the long-term average.

Many of those ducks should be heading south through Colorado, although fall weather and habitat conditions along migration routes will have a big impact on local success. CPW biologists found that local production for waterfowl was below average, yet sites that had adequate water fared better than most.

"Waterfowl hunting in the northeast will be dynamic this year and will likely change weekly based on precipitation and drought conditions," said Tom Kroening, area wildlife manager for Brush. "Hunters will want to scout areas and check on local conditions, which could yield great hunting or a tough outing."

After superlative ratings a year ago, the FWS report rated habitat throughout most of the central U.S. as poor to fair in 2012. But impacts from the drought could pay dividends over the long term, biologists say. Since wetland habitats are adapted to both wet and dry cycles, a reasonably short dry spell of a year or two aids nutrient cycling and makes the habitat more productive once wet again.

For the short term, however, the prevailing theme for Colorado waterfowl forecasts is that hunters should not get their hopes up. Many lakes remain extremely low, some dry, and hunters will need to travel a bit farther and work a bit harder to find birds.

Even the Arkansas River, a standard refuge for ducks when lakes begin to freeze, is too low in spots near the state line to sustain waterfowl this season. A cold snap could be enough to send them south in a hurry, experts say.

"Severe drought in some important wintering regions adds a bit more uncertainty about prospects for the fall. However, I am encouraged by the number of breeding ducks surveyed this year," said Dale Humburg, chief scientist for Ducks Unlimited. "As a waterfowl hunter, I am always optimistic. As a waterfowl biologist, I am realistic."

Scott Willoughby: 303-954-1993, swilloughby@denverpost.com


Duck Season Dates - Central Flyway:

Northeast Zone:

Areas: East of I-25 and north of I-70.

First season - Oct. 6 to Nov. 26

Second season - Dec. 15 to Jan. 15

Southeast Zone:

Areas: East of I-25 and south of I-70, and all of El Paso, Pueblo, Huerfano and Las Animas counties.

Dates: Oct. 24 to Jan. 27

Mountain-Foothills Zone:

Areas: West of I-25 and east of Continental Divide, except El Paso, Pueblo, Huerfano and Las Animas. counties

First season: Sept. 29 to Nov. 25

Second season: Dec. 21 to Jan. 27

GOOSE SEASON DATES - CENTRAL FLYWAY:

Regular season:

Areas: East of Continental Divide, except areas with the following seasons: Northern Front Range, North Park and South Park/San Luis Valley.

Dark geese: Nov. 17 to Feb. 10

Light geese: Oct. 27 to Feb. 10

Northern Front Range season:

Areas: Boulder, Larimer and Weld counties from the Continental Divide east along the Wyoming border to Hwy. 85, south on Hwy. 85 to Adams Co. line, and all of Adams, Arapahoe, Broomfield, Clear Creek, Denver, Douglas, Gilpin and Jefferson counties.

Dark geese: Sept. 29 to Oct. 14; Nov. 17 to Feb. 10

Light geese: Oct. 27 to Feb. 10

South Park /San Luis Valley season:

Areas: Alamosa, Chaffee, Conejos, Costilla, Custer, Fremont, Lake, Park, Rio Grande and Teller counties. And the parts of Hinsdale, Mineral and Saguache counties east of the Continental Divide.

Dark geese: Sept. 29 to Oct. 14; Nov. 17 to Feb. 10

Light geese: Oct. 27 to Feb. 10

North Park season:

Areas: Jackson County

Dark geese: Sept. 29 to Oct. 14; Nov. 17 to Feb. 10, 2013

Light geese: Oct. 27 to Feb. 10

Light Goose Conservation Order Season Areas: East of I-25

Dates: Feb. 11 to Apr. 30