In the still darkness that precedes dawn, a pair of duck hunters string out their decoys and retreat to a camouflaged blind hidden among the cattails.
Soon, the marshy fringes of Devil's Lake, N.D., give way to a profusion of whirring wings sailing across the sky. As the sun turns into a glowing red bead on the horizon, pulsing squadrons of mallards, bluebills, and snow geese are met with the echo of shotguns and splashing bird dogs.
"I had read the reports of how terrific the duck numbers were going to be and decided I couldn't miss it," says Herb Sundin, a Milwaukee businessman who has made the pilgrimage with his college-aged son. "We had our bag limits within an hour after sunrise."
Welcome to ground zero of the 1996 autumn waterfowl season, featuring the largest southward migration of aquatic game birds in the last quarter century.
For hunting and wildlife enthusiasts, this skyful of fowl represents a success story for private wetlands protection and federal land management. For farmers, there is still some grousing over the loss of productive land. And conservationists worry that it is too soon to celebrate the recovery of all species. Still, many hail the rebounding numbers.
"Few waterfowlers today will have ever seen more ducks than they will this fall," says Matt Connolly, executive director of Memphis-based Ducks Unlimited, a wetland and waterfowl conservation group. "These are truly the glory days for waterfowlers."
Estimates are that by the end of December, nearly 90 million ducks and geese will have funneled out of Canada and Alaska, spilling down across four major flyways that stretch toward Mexico. Last year, the concentration of migratory birds was so thick in the Central Flyway that the flocks scrambled airport radar signals in Omaha, Neb., and Kansas City.
Estimated duck numbers in 1996 are 16 percent higher still, the US Fish and Wildlife Service says - a dramatic turnaround from eight years ago, when roughly half as many ducks took to the wing.
Behind the recovery are both natural and man-made forces. Bruce Batt, the chief biologist for Ducks Unlimited, which has generated $1 billion for wetlands protection over the past five decades, says that heavy rains three years ago ended a decade-long drought in the duck-breeding areas of central Canada, and the number of female ducks successfully raising a brood on the nest has increased.
But equally important, he notes, is an unprecedented attack on farm policies that have encroached on habitat, much of it in the heartland of North America.
Historically, the Dakotas and the Canadian prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba have been considered "North America's duck factory" for one simple reason: glacial potholes. Millions of these water-filled depressions pocked the landscape at the turn of the century.
But since the end of World War II, the pothole country has been transformed by powerful, motorized tractors and federal economic policies that encouraged farmers to plant on every square inch of available land. Often, it meant draining the potholes.
The impact on breeding duck populations was disastrous. By the late 1960s and into the '80s, the autumn flight had declined to a fraction of its former numbers.
Reacting to an outcry from hunters, the governments of the US, Canada, and Mexico 10 years ago came together with conservationists and private property owners to write the first North American Waterfowl Management Plan. The plan protects waterfowl habitat in 34 key breeding areas from the arctic to the sub tropics.
The blueprint suggests that in order to achieve what is considered true biological stability - in essence rebuilding a duck population that can better withstand drought - numbers of 10 major species must collectively reach 100 million individuals over several consecutive years running. Certainly, the 90 million figure approaches that objective but even Fish and Wildlife officials say the battle to save ducks isn't won yet.
"Based upon the projections that were made earlier this year, I think that many hunters have gone to the marshes expecting the sky to turn black with ducks and geese, but it didn't happen," says Lloyd Jones of the Delta Waterfowl Foundation, a waterfowl research group. "We certainly have good reason to be optimistic because the drought is over and there's lots of habitat out there, but I also think we should be extremely cautious given the huge range of uncertainty."
Lost in the euphoria over the total number of ducks, Mr. Jones says, is the fact that Canada geese along the Eastern Seaboard and four species of ducks in the center of the country - pintails, wigeon, scaup, and even mallards - actually showed decreases in the number of breeding females. Nonetheless, the federal government's daily bag limit for ducks increased and the length of the hunting season nearly doubled.
"Until we know why some species are still having trouble it's too premature to declare that we've rounded the corner to full recovery," Jones says. "You never know what is going to happen in Congress or among the Canadians with their farm programs."
One danger is that lawmakers on Capitol Hill, upon hearing of the net gains in duck numbers, may assume that victory has already been achieved and move to relax wetlands regulations, says Jeff Nelson, of the Ducks Unlimited Great Plains office in Bismark, N.D.
If such action were to occur, Mr. Nelson adds, it could quickly set back the recovery process and leave certain species of duck populations even more vulnerable during future droughts.
The key, he suggests, is full implementation of the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), created a decade ago to provide economic incentives for farmers who stem soil erosion by giving their land time to recover between plantings and, more important for waterfowl, to prevent the draining of potholes or seasonal wetlands where ducks breed and nest.
"During the first few years of the program in the late 1980s, no one really knew what effect, if any, CRP lands were having in helping to stabilize waterfowl populations," Nelson says. "But then in 1992, an evaluation was completed and those lands proved to be more beneficial than any of us thought."
In just two years, CRP protected tens of millions of acres, including four times as much critical grassland important to breeding ducks as had been preserved in the entire national wildlife refuge system.
Although the 104th Congress voted again to fund CRP and the Wetlands Reserve Program when it passed the 1996 farm bill, delays in setting the new guidelines have caused some American farmers to question whether they will participate again next year.
But in Devil's Lake, shop owners and motel operators understand the urgency as much as the farmers: A bumper duck migration means millions of tourist dollars.