Dry, hot weather might make for tough duck hunting season

It’s been a long hot summer and it’s not nearly over yet, but hunting is on the horizon and Sept. 1 is the opener on doves, with teal up shortly after that. And before you know, it we’ll be getting up at 4 a.m. to make a duck hunt. With that in mind, it’s time to think about how the statewide Texas drought is going to impact duck hunts. Also, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has come up with proposed duck hunting dates that have yet to be approved by the TPW commission.

First, the good news. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service is saying that we’re in for a great waterfowl season. In fact, USFWS studies show that we have an estimated mallard abundance of 9.2 million birds, a 9 percent increase from the 2010 estimate of 8.4 million birds and higher than the long-term average.

Blue-winged teal estimated abundance is a record 8.9 million, which was 41 percent above the 2010 estimate of 6.3 million, and 91 percent above the long-term average.The northern pintail estimate of 4.4 million was 26 percent above the 2010 estimate of 3.5 million, and similar to the long-term average.

Estimated abundance of American wigeon was 14 percent below the 2010 estimate and 20 percent below the long-term average.

That’s all very good news for duck hunters. But there is a huge glitch that could cause major problems for Texas duck hunters, and it all centers on the drought.

“This year’s exceptional drought could have significant impacts on waterfowl this fall as habitats that these migrants rely upon continue to degrade under a hot, dry Texas sun,” says Tom Harvey with TPWD. “The upshot for hunters is that it won’t be a banner waterfowl season in Texas, but those who are mobile and do their homework have a shot at decent and even potentially great waterfowl hunting in some places.”

Between 5 and 6 million waterfowl on average call Texas home over the winter, and this year’s migration is expected to be huge due to excellent habitat conditions throughout the breeding grounds in the Dakotas and southern Canada. Unfortunately, all those ducks will likely get a warm, dry Texas welcome when they begin arriving in September.

“The same weather pattern that has left us high and dry has continued to bless the entire waterfowl breeding grounds up north with tremendous amounts of moisture,” says Kevin Kraai, waterfowl program leader with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “We’re projecting duck numbers as good as we have ever seen.”

Kraai says that weather projection models indicate very little relief from the drought in Texas heading into September’s early teal season, and dry conditions will have a severe impact on migration for months to come. While the Aug. 4 NOAA U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook shows intense drought continuing in most of Texas through October, the forecast also shows a possibility of some improvement along the Texas coast.

“The drought has impacted the wetlands, marshes, reservoirs, ponds, creeks and bottomlands across the state,” said Kraai. “Natural food production will most certainly be limited in many areas.”

Waterfowl biologists with TPWD report that the impact of the drought on Texas’ primary waterfowl wintering areas along the Gulf Coast prairies and marshes have been severe. Marshes are dry, and those areas still holding water have become extremely salty. The high salinities are crippling fresh and brackish marsh vegetation, and adversely impacting even some of the more salt tolerant vegetation.

Kraai says that if conditions do not improve, duck hunters could see birds making a detour before they even cross the border into Texas. Waterfowl have an uncanny sense of assessing habitat conditions during migration and could bypass the Lone Star State entirely.

A good example of waterfowl responding to habitat conditions was illustrated with recent telemetry data that showed a hen pintail on the coast of Louisiana that reversed migrated more than 500 miles in the dead of winter to Missouri in response to a flood event that created tons of very productive new habitat.

“Waterfowl have a tendency to know where the best habitat on the landscape can be found to carry out their annual life cycles, often from hundreds of miles away,” said Kraai.

Ducks have plenty of options. For example, they can head east to the Mississippi Flyway, or keep heading south to Mexico.

“There is always water somewhere in the state of Texas, and some of it will be near good food resources like peanuts, rice and corn,” says Kraai. “I am confident some fortunate landowners and hunters that receive rainfall or have access to water either from wells or irrigation canals are potentially going to experience a season they will not soon forget.”

Robert Sloan can be reached by e-mail at sloan288 [at] aol [dot] com