For the second consecutive year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expects a very good duck migration. The fall flight forecast is based on aerial surveys of breeding ducks in Canada.
This year’s survey totaled 48.4 million ducks, slightly lower than last year’s record 49.5 million but 38 percent ahead of the long-term average, taken since 1955.
As North Texas duck hunters can attest, a good duck hatch doesn’t necessarily translate to a good duck season. Cold weather in the northern reaches of the Central Flyway is an important factor. So is the quality of habitat that attracts and holds migrating ducks. Dave Morrison, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s small-game program director, said input from hunters resulted in North Zone season dates being tweaked.
“The North Zone was modified for maximum opportunity in December,” Morrison said. “Our North Zone hunters have long believed that later is better, and harvest data concurred. We wanted to take advantage of every weekend in December and January.”
Kevin Kraai, TPWD’s waterfowl program leader, said he’s discouraged by recent warm weather patterns, but current water conditions are good for submerged aquatic vegetation that’s important to many duck species. Abundant rainfall for two years reduced restrictions for irrigation water in the South Zone, meaning an additional 40,000 to 50,000 acres of rice production, Kraai said.
“The increase in rice will increase waterfowl carrying capacity in our Gulf Coast region, and the birds are expected to respond favorably,” Kraai said.
Duck species important to the success of Texas hunters are doing particularly well this year. Mallards numbered 11.8 million in the survey, up slightly from last season and 51 percent above the long-term average. Gadwalls were down 3 percent from last year but 90 percent ahead of the long-term average.
Widgeon were up 12 percent from last year and 31 percent above the long term. Green-winged teal, up 5 percent from last year, are 104 percent above long term. The northern shoveler declined 10 percent from 2015 but remains 56 percent above the long-term average.
These species should be abundant throughout North Texas, and it’s important to tell which is which. The daily bag limit differentiates among species.
It’s critical to determine species before shooting. Fortunately, there are many duck identification guides on the internet. Study the Texas Waterfowl Digest, the Texas Wildlife Identification Guide, and On the Waterfowl of Texas, online at http://tpwd.texas.gov.
Duck hunters — all hunters — have an obligation to follow the rules. They will see many different species of birds that are not ducks. A bald eagle recently was photographed by John Lusk at Lewisville Lake. Eagles winter on many North Texas lakes.
Hunters also should be aware that endangered whooping cranes are late to migrate this fall, and they may pass through North Texas after duck season has begun. The white cranes with black wingtips almost became extinct in 1941 when the population decreased to just 15 birds. Last year, they hit a record high of 329 birds.
At Richland Creek Wildlife Management Area in mid-October, manager Matt Symmank saw a peregrine falcon take a green-winged teal out of the air. Falcons and all hawks are protected. They sometimes mistake decoys for the real thing. Shorebirds also are common in good waterfowl habitat and occasionally attracted to duck decoys.
With about 1,500 acres of wetlands, Richland Creek, between Corsicana and Palestine, should be one of the region’s top public duck hunting spots. The public area is not open every day.
Check the details for all WMA waterfowl hunting opportunities at http://tpwd.texas.gov. Click on “Public Hunting” in the “Hunting” menu at the top of the home page and navigate from there.
Texas duck seasons
North Zone: Nov. 12-27 and Dec. 3-Jan. 29
South Zone: Nov. 5-27 and Dec. 10-Jan. 29
High Plains Mallard Management Unit: Nov. 4-Jan. 29
Saturday — First split of duck season begins in the North Zone.
Sunday — First split of dove season ends in the North Zone.