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Duck Season outlook: No water, no fowl

Male Mallard
Male Mallard
Wikipedia

AUSTIN – Texas water fowlers might have better luck bringing in birds with a divining rod instead of a duck call this hunting season. Wetland habitat conditions throughout waterfowl wintering grounds in Texas have suffered greatly under the drought, and what precious little groceries that remain aren’t expected to hold birds for long.

Any rainfall prior to the Nov. 5 waterfowl season opener would be a welcome sight for an anticipated banner migration of ducks, but at this point wildlife biologists feel it’s too late to repair the damage this year from the drought.

“It will be a very interesting year to say the least as we have a large number of waterfowl headed our way but very little habitat on the landscape to support them,” said Matt Nelson, Central Coast Wetlands Ecosystem Project Leader with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. I suspect the bays will see more activity this season than in years past but with little food production I don’t think we will hold many birds for any length of time. We simply do not have the habitat or food. “

Hunting in areas fortunate enough to have retained water and preserved habitat should be excellent during the early part of the season, but may not be sustainable through the winter.

Texas provides a winter home to 90 percent of the Central Flyway’s ducks, roughly 10 million birds in an average year. Unfortunately, this year is an exception as extremely wet conditions in the prairie pothole waterfowl breeding grounds in Canada and the Dakotas bolstered production and near record fall flights are headed this way.

The bulk of incoming ducks winter along the Texas coast and rely on a number of wildlife areas; a lot of duck hunters do, too. Here’s a quick look at conditions at those traditional hotspots:

Nelson stressed the mid coast Wildlife Management Areas have very little freshwater available and all wetland impoundments and fresh water ponds are dry. Currently the only water on the Justin Hurst WMA and Mad Island WMA are tidal water.

“It’s very salty at the moment and these tidal marshes are pretty much void of any submergent vegetation, which our migrating friends are dependent upon,” Nelson said.

Guadalupe Delta WMA is in better shape as its marshes have maintained a decent amount of fresh/brackish water throughout the summer and has produced a fair amount of groceries for the ducks.

“Unfortunately it’s the only area along the mid-coast at the moment with decent habitat and considering the high number of migrating birds headed our way I predict what submergent vegetation is remaining will be consumed quickly,” Nelson predicted. “I don’t know where the birds will go but I feel that they won’t be in very good shape when we send them back up north.”

The upper coast is fairing a little better, but not much, said Jim Sutherlin, TPWD Upper Coast Wetlands Ecosystem Project Leader.

We are 23 inches behind our annual rainfall after ending last year around 13 inches behind,” said Sutherlin. “Our soil moisture levels are very low, but we are growing green grass this fall instead of watching grass turn brown as we did in the hot summer. Coastal marsh habitat conditions are dismal, either we have dry marshes, or marshes with very high salinity waters which produce little wildlife benefit, kill plants and deteriorate organic wetland soils.”

The brightest spot on the J.D. Murphree WMA is likely Wetland Compartment 5 where Ducks Unlimited installed a new pump this past summer using a NAWCA Grant (North American Wetlands Conservation Act), which gives the WMA the ability to pump water from Big Hill Bayou into this management compartment.

“We have very few submerged aquatic plants, but we do have some impressive stands of millet in a few sites,” Sutherlin added. “The rice agriculture and coastal prairie range around us is very dry. We likely will have an abundance of ducks for short periods of time during the hunting season due to the overall duck numbers in this fall migration. I do not expect the birds to stay with us for very long due to low waterfowl food availability and marginal seasonal habitat conditions along the Western Gulf Coast.”

Habitat conditions are equally bleak in the High Plains with biologists reporting all playa basins are dry in the Panhandle.

“Our ‘rainy season’ typically ends around the end of October, thus, it appears this is the card we have been dealt this year,” said Kraai.

Goose hunting still could be good around the more permanent water sources such as Rita Blanca Lake near Dalhart, feedlot lakes, effluent lakes near tanneries and beef packing plants, power plant lakes and urban lakes.

“We continue to see a growing population of wintering small Canada geese utilizing urban parks and lakes that make feeding flights to surrounding crop fields each morning and evening,” added Kraai. “I expect we will see an increase in these populations once again this year simply because they will have very few options in regards to playa wetlands on the landscape. So, individuals targeting these urban geese in crop lands near Lubbock, Amarillo and Plainview have the potential to see consistent success this winter.”

Hunters are reminded that in addition to HIP (Harvest Information Program) certification, they are required to possess a Federal Duck Stamp and a Texas Migratory Game Bird Stamp to hunt ducks, geese and sandhill cranes.

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