Hotspots For Cotton State Waterfowl

As the year-end chill settles in over Alabama, the action for ducks will begin to warm up. How's the season going to stack up this year? (December 2006)

Whether they're quacking away on a call in a duck blind, surrounded by a spread of dekes in Mobile Bay's backwaters or watching the sunrise from a boat moored somewhere on the Tennessee River, hunters should be able to sling plenty of steel at incoming waterfowl this winter: Preliminary reports from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier in the year indicated that record numbers of almost every web-footed species were waiting for the first deep freeze that would signal the start of their pilgrimage to south of the Mason-Dixon line.

All that stands in the way of what could be a banner year for the Heart of Dixie's estimated 17,000 waterfowlers is fickle Mother Nature. We need for our cousins up north to endure a hard winter -- one that'll drive the ducks southward from the Prairie Pothole and other far reaches. Of course, it sure wouldn't hurt if we had sufficient rain between now and then to keep our swamps, marshes and beaver ponds filled and looking inviting to the birds.

The Prairie Pothole region -- consisting of parts of Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, as well as the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba -- is the primary breeding ground for almost two-thirds of the ducks seen along the Mississippi Flyway. The rest come from the states and provinces on each side of the Great Lakes. A lot of the early data annually amassed on duck populations comes from the Canadian provinces and the Dakotas in that region, along with statistics from Montana to the west.

While higher USFWS breeding-ground counts might put smiles on the faces of biologists, scientists and waterfowl activists closely follow the size of the flocks, as having plenty of ducks up north doesn't mean that we'll see them down here. In fact, some of the worst hunting seasons on record have followed the best springtime counts. So it all comes down to the weather.

Last January, University of Montana professor and wildlife biologist David Naugle delivered a somber message on global warming to waterfowl researchers assembled in Arkansas. Drumming up support for policies calling for a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, he told duck hunters that if they didn't get behind the effort, the Prairie Pothole region and other such breeding grounds would disappear like puddles in the desert.

The Associated Press reported that Naugle was paid by the environmental group Natural State Coalition to lecture on findings he'd published the previous fall in the scientific journal BioScience. To sum up his report: The climate has grown considerably warmer in the last century, and if the trend continues, North America's duck breeding grounds will shrink, with the loss aggravated if warmer weather is coupled with drought.

Naugle's bleak prediction came on the heels of the 2005 season that saw a 50 percent drop in Arkansas's duck numbers, although in some circles that has been attributed to changes in migration patterns and changes in rice farming there.

"If we can't produce the ducks on the breeding grounds, it's a moot point where they go after this," Naugle warned.

Yet, as noted, this year's duck numbers have been high. For now, at least, there seem to be marshes enough to support thriving populations of ducks. This comes from aerial counts, not from census takers slithering through the grass and reeds with clipboards in their hands -- and counting ducks on a pond by flying overhead is a bit like scattering rice on a tabletop and trying to estimate the number of grains you see. It's not an exact science. But biologists have learned that they see about half of what's really there.

The USFWS preliminary report, issued last summer by Khristi Wilkins and Mark Otto, showed total duck populations of 36.2 million birds -- a 14 percent increase over 2005 numbers. At 55 percent, the most significant jump was in redheads. Others on the rise were mallards, blue- and green-winged teal, gadwalls, canvasbacks, northern shovelers and pintails. Those on the decline were American widgeon and scaup, the latter posting a record low for the second consecutive year.

"There's plenty of good news," Delta Waterfowl president Rob Olson said of the survey conducted jointly by U.S. and Canadian wildlife services. "Obviously, we have to be thrilled about the improved habitat conditions and the higher total population. Mother Nature has set the table for ducks. With the exception of 1996 and 1997, prairie Canada is the wettest it's been since the '70s, and this is the second year Canada has been wet. If you put enough water on the landscape, ducks should respond."

The rosy outlook comes despite last year's warm winter. The report credits outstanding breeding habitat to the above-average precipitation that fell last winter and spring.

Another highlight of the report involved the 2006 pond count. It was the eighth-highest in the 46 years biologists have been tracking these bodies of water.

David Hayden of the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries knows better than to rely solely on his federal brethren's tally. While it's nice to know that most ducks are thriving in their spring and summertime environs, a lot must happen for Alabamians to hear and see their share of waterfowl.

"The potential for a real good season is there," remarked Hayden, assistant chief of the wildlife section. "But it'll all depend on the weather. Alabama's really not a prime waterfowl habitat state compared to Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. Success here is spotty. It often boils down to water management -- who controls the water. Those who have enough of it will see the ducks."

Another factor, he added, is hunting pressure. "My opinion and $2 will get you a cup of coffee," he said with a laugh, "but to hunt ducks almost anywhere in the South, you have to be a better and more consistent hunter. Most everything we see has been shot at long before it arrives here. The ducks in Alabama have seen just about everything: every kind of blind and duck boat, spinning-wing decoys and wobbling (duck) butts."

A current study indicates that ducks are quickly and easily conditioned to avoid gunshots. They tend to shun areas in which they've been hunted, sometimes for as long as four weeks before returning.

After more than two years of flying over and taking note of ducks along the South Platte River corridor, biologists not only got a feel for how many ducks there are, but also for the places in which the birds spend their days. Hunters in the area have long complained that the ducks aren't migrating there in anything like the numbers they once did. Aerial surveys, however, disproved

that theory. As it turned out, the ducks simply avoided the places that experience had shown were crawling with waterfowlers lying in wait.

"These birds know how to avoid the gun, and they do a very good job of avoiding hunters," one biologist reported, adding that they often steer clear of danger by roosting on large reservoirs instead of on small rivers.

Those kinds of reports bode well for a split waterfowl season, even if -- as is the case in Alabama -- there aren't a whole lot of ducks to "educate" during the initial hunting dates. The majority of hunters who pine for a late, straight, unsplit season would do well to reconsider: With no letup in the action, the ducks could learn quickly and become scarce later on, perhaps resulting in slower action than is provided by the split sessions.

The regular duck season in Alabama typically begins with a two-day hunt just after Thanksgiving, followed by a much longer session from early December on through the end of January. There are exceptions -- such as was seen last year, when hunting canvasbacks was allowed only from the end of December through the end or January.

Hayden expects no major changes this year. The post-Thanksgiving hunt has become such a family tradition, he observed, that he doubts that his agency will scrap it.

PUBLIC-LAND HOTSPOTS

For those without access to a private duck pond, Alabama has numerous public lands bordering major waterways. The following tracts generally receive a thumbs-up from the state's waterfowlers.

The Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge has been around since 1964. It spans both the Alabama and Georgia shores of the Chattahoochee River, covering nearly 8,000 acres in Barbour and Russell counties as well as 3,231 acres in Stewart and Quitman counties in Georgia. This popular waterfowling destination offers quota hunts: Applications must be filled out and returned to the refuge office, and the limited hunting slots are awarded by random drawing.

After paying a fee of $15 beforehand, successful applicants are issued a non-transferable permit for a specific Saturday at Alabama's Kennedy Impoundment or for Wednesday on Georgia's Bradley Impoundment. Hunting ceases at noon. All other areas within the refuge are closed to waterfowl hunting.

Non-permitted hunters may show up on the mornings of each hunt to act as standbys. Unclaimed blinds that hold no more than three hunters are then allotted by drawing.

For more information on the Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge and its hunts, log on to www.fws.gov/ eufaula.

North Alabama waterfowlers have several options, chief among them the 1,483-acre Mallard-Fox Creek Wildlife Management Area in Limestone County -- basically a block of Wheeler Lake's southern shoreline that encompasses numerous small creeks and sloughs. Across the river lies the much larger Swan Creek WMA, which straddles Lawrence and Morgan counties; it covers almost 9,000 acres. Permanent blinds are available by lottery drawings.

A northwest Alabama site frequented by ducks and, thus, duck hunters is Seven Mile Island WMA. This tract covers 4,685 acres near Florence.

Jackson County, at the easternmost end of Alabama's portion of the Tennessee River, has three more public areas noted for providing duck action. Mud Creek WMA has 8,193 acres near Scottsboro; Crow Creek WMA covers 2,200 acres near Stevenson; and 7,000-plus-acre Raccoon Creek WMA lies along the east shore of the river near Flat Rock.

Normal rainfall is critical to success at many of the north Alabama WMAs. Last year, for example, many great duck ponds, like those in Crow Creek WMA, were left high and dry. Hunters in that area had to scramble for alternate destinations.

West Alabama's public-land hotspot is the Demopolis WMA near the junction of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior rivers. This reserve spans nearly 7,000 acres that lie in portions of Sumter, Hale, Marengo and Greene counties.

Farther south, a duck hunter could get lost in the expansive trio of WMAs in the marshy crease between Baldwin and Mobile counties. The newer Upper Delta WMA near Stockton encompasses 35,795 acres. Another 58,321 acres of marsh lie in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta WMA, and an additional 15,000 acres of shallows grace the W.L. Holland WMA.

To learn more about the regulations at these individual tracts, visit the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Web site at www.outdooralabama.com. Next, follow the link for Hunting; then follow the links through Where To Hunt, Wildlife Management Area Maps and Permits to the specific WMA in which you are interested.

Keep in mind that in addition to the state hunting license, HIP card and state and federal duck stamps, you need a $15 WMA license to access the state-owned tracts.

Also, since the regulations generally allow shooting at specific times, you can check the sunrise and sunset times for any area in the state by logging on to www.aa.usno.navy.mil/data/ docs/RS_OneDay.html

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