Early -- And Other -- Birds Of Fall

When it comes to autumn bird hunting, Alabama's got variety. Here's a look at a number of overlooked options for making feathers fly this autumn. (September 2007)

The Cotton State has an early special goose season for resident Canada geese -- which can become real nuisances.
Photo by Polly Dean.

Wingshooters' anticipation of the opening first of dove season and then of duck season is a standard situation for late summer and early fall in Alabama. But a number of other birds out there are in fact fair game at this time of year. Some of these species are popular; others go virtually unexploited. Let's take a look at these shooting opportunities.

EARLY GEESE

"A friend and I were hunting on Lay Lake in September," my friend Mike told me. "We'd put out our decoys and built a blind, and we'd already taken two geese. We needed four more Canadas to fill our limit of five per day."

In early September, with the water extremely warm, plenty of fishermen, water-skiers and folks on personal watercraft were enjoying their sports on that central Alabama reservoir. However, my friend was hunting off the main river channel, so the waves from the boats and PWCs hadn't created a problem for that early-season goose hunt.

Then, at about 8:00 a.m., one of the riders on a PWC spotted the goose decoys and started riding through the spread. "He pulled up about 20 yards from our blind," Mike recalled, "and started screaming at us: 'I can't believe you guys are trying to kill these geese! They haven't bothered you, so you have no reason to shoot them! This is illegal! Y'all stay right here -- I'm going to get the game warden!'"

Before the hunters could say a word, the man had throttled up his watercraft, made a big circle and raced down the lake to find a conservation officer. In a few minutes, the young man on the PWC returned to the hunters' blind with a Department of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries boat following him. The conservation officer carefully eased his boat over to the two goose hunters and asked to see their hunting licenses; he also checked the PWC guy's driver's license.

Next, the officer listened to both versions of the incident. The hunters described the PWC being driven through their decoys, and the accusation of illegal activity being hurled their way.

"Yes, sir," the young man on the PWC agreed. "I hoped to spook the geese away from their blind until I could find you, bring you up here to arrest them and stop them from shooting these geese."

The conversation officer pulled out his ticket book and began writing a citation.

Meanwhile the accuser continued to be vocal. "I told you two that you'd be in trouble," he growled. "You have no business out here hunting."

When the conservation officer completed the paperwork, the joyrider was astonished that it was handed to him, not the hunters "Why am I getting a citation?" he protested.

"These two fellows are legally hunting early-season geese," the officer told him. "The season runs from Sept. 1 through Sept. 15. From what I understand, you've been harassing them and interfering with the legal taking of game -- so you get the citation."

That whole scene actually took place several years ago during one of Alabama's first resident goose seasons.

Resident geese in Alabama are often referred to by some folks simply as "mistakes." Through trades with wildlife agencies in more northerly areas, many Southern states ended up obtaining and releasing Canada geese. Obviously, Bama was among those states.

The birds found our Southern clime to their liking -- to the point that they saw no reason to migrate. Thus, they now live full-time in Alabama and reproduce here. Without the rigors of the migration season and few predators, their numbers have expanded. Unfortunately, the geese don't just stay in areas convenient for us.

I live about three blocks from Interstate 459, the major corridor that circles the city of Birmingham. Every morning at first light, four or five flocks of these geese come in low over my house headed for nearby Altadena, Heatherwood and Inverness golf courses. At those links geese find plenty of green grass to eat and water in the ponds -- a quiet sanctuary to raise their young. Needless to say, both the mess that the geese leave behind and the birds' aggressive behavior toward golfers who get too near make them unwelcome guests.

Shortly after the birds became established in the Cotton State, the clamor for a goose season began to arise. And, frankly, few folks that have been around the birds came to their defense. Thus was born Alabama's special early Canada goose season, which generally runs through the first couple of weeks in September.

The daily limit per hunter is five birds.

TURNING TO TEAL

Geese aren't the only waterfowl that can be hunted early in the Yellowhammer State. Alabama has an early teal season, also open for most of September. In this case, however, it's not because the birds are nuisances. Quite the contrary: They're popular game birds, but ones that have a very early migration schedule. These ducks have come and gone before Alabama's regular duck season even opens.

Targeting blue-winged, green-winged and cinnamon teal can be great sport this month. Flying just above the water, they can reach speeds of 50 miles per hour. At times they also act as if they can hear a load of shot headed their way, since they cut, dodge and roll so often. If you're a wingshooter, and you enjoy humbling experiences, test your mettle on teal.

Teal like to hold in grasses and marshes. Often you find swarms of the ducks on the backwaters the north Alabama lakes along the Tennessee River.

Easy to identify when in the air because they fly so fast, they're small, looking at a distance like a swarm of mosquitoes. As they come closer, the colored patches on their wings become visible, confirming the identification.

Fairly easy to decoy, these birds respond best to a teal whistle. Fortunately, the high-pitched whistle calls are easy to learn to use. Mixing some mallard decoys into the spread, as well as making an occasional mallard call, can enhance your efforts to entice the teal close to your blind.

The limit during the early teal season is four birds per hunter.

SNIPE AND WOODCOCK

These game birds have later seasons in the Cotton State, but they still don't get any respect. Alabamians expend very few days on wingshooting for either species.

Snipe are so rarely taken seriously because of a long history of poor publicity. Most folks think about novice hunters straddling a ditch at night and holding a burlap bag open while waiting for their comrades to drive the birds down the gully and into the bag. (Just one example of how one ends up "holding the bag," of course.)

In the actual world of snipe hunting, the birds are found in wetlands or flooded fields; there they use their long beaks to probe the mud for worms and other fare. Once flushed, they fly close to the ground at unbelievable speeds while cutting, rolling and diving.

The real downside to snipe hunting is that these birds' bodies are quite small. When breasted out like a dove, they afford little meat for the dinner table, and that usually has an "earthy" flavor that probably derives from their forage.

Each year snipe season runs from mid-November through the first week of February. The daily limit is eight birds per hunter.

Most Alabamians don't specifically hunt woodcock (also referred to as "timber doodles"). These birds inhabiting low, wet areas are prone to scare hunters half to death by exploding into the air.

Quail hunters or squirrel hunters using shotguns kill the bulk of the woodcock taken in Alabama. In northern states, the woodcock is a prized game bird and a primary quarry, but here they're shot incidentally when stumbled upon.

Woodcock season runs annually from mid-December through the end of January. The daily limit for the birds is three per hunter.

GALLINULES, MARSH HENS AND RAILS

Down on the Gulf Coast are found some all but totally neglected wingshooting opportunities for purple gallinules, common marsh hens and rails. You needn't expect a whole lot of competition for these birds.

Just getting to the critters is a major part of the challenge. Inhabitants of the marshes, the birds get back in the spartina grass and can only be reached by boat on the high tides. The best time to target these birds is around the new- and full-moon periods, when the highest water levels make it possible to get back in the grass to where they live.

One unusual bit of gear used by some hunters: a bag of rocks. The marsh hens in particular let out guttural calls when you trespass too close to where they're hidden in the grass -- but you won't be able to see them, and they don't ordinarily flush unless you run right over them. So once they sound off, chunking a rock into the spot from which the call came will put them in the air. Obviously, having a partner along -- so you can alternate between tossing rocks and taking shots -- is useful for this type of action.

Usually, the season for these birds opens just before Thanksgiving and runs through the last week of January. The daily limit is quite liberal: 15 birds in any combination of the three species.

FALL TURKEY HUNTS?

When turkey hunting is mentioned, the spring gobbler season immediately pops into most folks' minds -- yet you may also hunt the birds in the fall.

Without question, the turkey gobbler's the king of all fall birds -- and you can hunt fall gobblers in six Alabama counties: Clarke, Clay, Covington, Monroe, Randolph and Talladega. The season ordinarily runs from the week before Thanksgiving to Jan. 1.

But don't look for the same kind of action experienced during the spring season; the whole basis of the hunt is quite different in the fall. Using enticing clucks and purrs to call in a lovesick gobbler is useless at this time of year, since neither hens nor gobblers have courtship on their minds.

Fall hunting quite often involves more scouting to locate areas that groups of birds are using. One fall trick: Simply walk in on the birds, flushing and scattering the flock. After a while, the birds ordinarily do some calling to find each other and reform the flock, at which point you can get in the act and try to fool them into coming into shotgun range.

Just be aware that you may not use decoys for fall turkey hunting. The daily limit is one gobbler per day, but you may harvest no more than five per year, aggregating your bag for both spring and fall seasons.

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