South Bama'™s Bonus Birds

Wingshooters in the southern reaches of the Cotton State have several extra birds to target in September. Action like that deserves some attention! (September 2008)

White-winged, mourning and Eurasian collared doves (from top to bottom) are all three showing up on south Alabama fields.
Photo by Mike Thompson.

After a long, hot summer, wingshooters in the southern part of Alabama look forward to busting a few caps and bagging birds on the wing for the first time in months. Dove hunters have long since prepped their fields in anticipation of the opening of the season.

The hard work in those fields and the continuing trend of skyrocketing oil and gas prices have some bird shooters wondering if it's all worth it. Fuel costs have driven the prices of seed, fertilizers and insecticides up as well. All of these increased expenses have made dove hunting a pricey proposition.

Despite any such downsides, fall will find most dove hunters in the field as usual. Nothing quite matches the camaraderie that goes along with a typical south Bama dove hunt. The prehunt meeting sees old friends getting to enjoy fellowship with those who share the same passion for wingshooting. Jokes are told, along with the stories of hunts gone by. Young hunters accompanying fathers, uncles or granddads sit back quietly to take in the tales of the senior shotgunners.

After the mandatory safety discussion, hunters hit the field in hopes of bagging a limit of birds. Hunters pick out a position that they feel will afford them the best opportunity to intercept the elusive gray rockets. Some pick the right spot; others are less fortunate.

Dove hunters are no different from any other hunters when it comes to trying to gain an advantage over their quarry. Putting up elaborate ground blinds to hide from the doves has become pretty standard. The use of dove decoys either placed on the ground around the blind or positioned in nearby trees, or along fences, enhances the chances of bagging birds.

Over the past few seasons, dove hunters have added another tool to their hunting arsenal. The spinning-wing decoy is, just as the name implies, a dove decoy with a battery-powered motor that causes the wings of the decoy to spin, thus imitating a flying dove. Place it on a raised stand, and its spinning wings can be seen from quite a distance. This motion captures the attention of the doves and lures them near to the decoy. While the birds' eyes are fixed on the decoy, the chances of their spotting the hunter are diminished.

While the target of most south Bama dove hunters is the mourning dove, there are a couple of recent additions that may end up in a hunter's game bag a well.

The white-winged dove is a migratory bird common in the central and Western states. South Alabama hunters encountered the whitewing on rare occasions in the past, but it was definitely an oddity at best.

White-winged doves are very similar to the mourning doves in size and coloration. However, as you might guess, the whitewings have a distinctive white patch on their wings. These doves normally prefer the arid country of the southwest United States and Mexico.

But over the last couple of seasons, south Bama hunters have seen a marked increase in whitewings. Theories about the upward trend abound. Some hunters attribute it to hurricanes Ivan and Katrina, which made landfall one year apart at the end of August and coincident with a large migration of whitewings that's normally under way at that time of year. It's thought that some of those doves attempted to skirt the storms and ended up in Alabama and Florida.

Whitewings are a welcome addition to wingshooting action, especially if the mourning dove action is slow. However, hunters must take note that the whitewings are counted as part of the total bag limit, so if you shoot a whitewing, 11 mourning doves will complete your limit.

Lyons Bousson of Fairhope regularly hunts doves through the fall. During the season Bousson and his hunting buddies often encounter whitewings. While these doves don't represent a large part of the action, Lyons and his crew look on the birds as a bonus to the mourning doves they see during hunts.

"We see a few white-wings early in the season," Bousson noted, "while the temperatures are still quite hot. As the season wears on and things cool down we see fewer. Since the white-wings are so few in number compared to the mourning doves, we get a pot going with a few bucks thrown in to see who can harvest the most whitewings. It adds a little spice to the hunt."

Besides being an extra species of dove to hunt, whitewings can provide sporty action that challenges even the most skillful of shooters. "The thing I like about the whitewings is that, after the first shot, they are some of the most acrobatic birds you're going to see on the wing," Bousson explained. "It's almost like they have a second gear they shift into once they're shot at. They typically will make a dive down, then shoot back up and to the side erratically."

Just the sight of the whitewings cruising into a field can add real excitement to the proceedings, such that hunters are often heard yelling to one another about approaching whitewings. "Since the whitewing is not really common to our area, the sighting of them can be a real boost to a slow hunt," Bousson pointed out. "That broad, white wing patch can be seen quite a ways off. It gives more intensity to your shooting by being able to harvest a sort of rare bird."

My first experience with Eurasian collared doves came about eight years ago, when I was invited to join a friend on a private dove hunt to be held during the week. My friend asked me to meet him at about 1:30 in the afternoon. The hunt would commence about 2:30, but he had something to show me first.

He drove his pickup down a couple of dusty roads until we came to the area of the farm; next, we pulled up to a barn and a couple of grain silos. My buddy pointed to a couple of pecan trees loaded with the collared doves. "Those doves right there will be joining us over in that wheat field down the road in an hour or so," he said.

My hunting partner was right in his prediction: The first doves to appear were mourning doves. They started dribbling into the field in small groups. As always, those birds were a challenge to knock down, and many more misses than hits were recorded.

About an hour into the hunt I saw a flock of about eight doves coming into the field from a different direction -- from the barn that we'd visited earlier. These birds

seemed much larger than the first birds to reach the field. And they were!

It was a group of Eurasian collared doves coming straight at me. I sat as still as I could before rising off my dove bucket. They were directly overhead when I fired, bringing down two of the birds.

When I ran out to retrieve the doves, I noticed two things: The birds were a lighter color than a mourning dove, almost silver, and their tailfeathers were noticeably squared off.

The next day, I cooked the birds I'd harvested. As usual, the mourning doves with hot grits covered in brown gravy were delicious, and the collared doves were great, too; I could distinguish no difference in taste between the two species. They proved truly enjoyable bonus birds.

Pat Riechley, another south Alabama hunter enjoying the exotic doves' expanding population, looks forward to shooting certain fields in Baldwin County that tend to hold more of the big collared doves.

"We have a number of fields that we hunt during the season," he said. "On some of the fields we almost never see a collared dove. On others we see quite a few. These fields are the ones that have old barns or grain silos. The birds also like to collect near pecan orchards and loaf till feeding time."

Riechley has noticed that the collared doves seem to mesh easily with the explosion in Baldwin County development. "Collared doves seem almost domesticated," he remarked. "They hang around bird feeders, show up after you cut the grass and load up a powerline around a house without fear. The construction boom in Baldwin County has resulted in the loss of lands farmed for generations. While this boom has moved some of the morning doves, the collared doves don't seem to mind the new environment at all."

Over the past seven to 10 years, south Alabama hunters have begun to enjoy the extra action, and the extra bulge in their game bags, provided by Eurasian collared doves. Conservation officials consider these birds -- often called "ringnecks" because of the dark, collarlike marking around their necks -- an exotic feral species that thus don't count for tallying a hunter's bag limit, so you can shoot all of this quarry that you want to clean. The proliferation of these birds has put a smile on the faces of hunters that encounter them in the wild.

Native to Europe, collared doves made their appearance in the early 1980s down in Florida, probably arriving from the Bahamas. Since that time the doves have started to thrive is several Southern states, multiplying in numbers and expanding their range significantly towards Texas.

Eurasian collared doves offer great shooting opportunities. Bigger than mourning doves, the birds are of a size that makes them quite challenging and tougher to bring down. These larger doves are reported to bully smaller mourning doves away from feeding stations.

Another characteristic of the collared dove is its noisy call -- a screech, almost, quite unlike the mourning dove's low-pitched coo; it can be heard for quite a distance in the field.

Doves aren't the only birds that south Bama wingshooters can target this month. Each September, blue-winged teal start their annual migration southward. Influenced by Mother Nature, the teal lift off the prairie potholes of the Midwestern states and southern Canada to ride ahead of the weather fronts on their journey southward to Central and South America. For that reason, state and federal rules allow an early season this month for teal -- the only ducks that can be harvested this early.

The teal have the ideal place to stop on their journey in the Mobile/Tensaw Delta. Full of the areas of shallow water that teal prefer, the area features multiple grass-filled bays that are ideal habitat for the diminutive ducks.

Teal love to feed in the shallowest of places, liking to swim leisurely along while they dine. This makes it difficult for hunters to get at them, but adds to the challenge of hunting the early migrants.

Since the Mobile Delta isn't the ultimate destination for teal, the small ducks use the area as a sort of bed-and-breakfast -- a short stay, and then on their way -- so targeting them is a guessing game at best. Areas covered with teal today can be barren of the birds tomorrow. Your best bet? Just cross your fingers and go. Another wave of teal may descend on the Delta after an overnight flight; if you're there, you're the beneficiary.

For more than 40 years, the sportsmen who hunt the Delta have had a gentlemen's agreement that you may construct and claim a blind for opening day: If you build it, only you can hunt it on opening day, but thereafter it's first come, first served. Since the Delta is such a popular area, plenty of blinds will be constructed for the opener, so finding a vacant blind later in the season is usually possible.

Once you've chosen a location in the pre-dawn darkness, you then have to set up a decoy spread. Teal decoys are obviously your best bet for success, but you can use other species of decoys to lure the birds into shotgun range. Since most ducks are in very drab plumage in September, you should have your decoys painted o match. Using only hen decoys is an excellent way to achieve that early-season plumage effect in your decoy spread.

Teal are gregarious birds. To lure them towards your decoy spread, employ duck calls to get the birds' attention as they fly the marsh. A regular hen mallard call often turns a flock of teal in your direction during the early season. Another call that gets excellent results is the blue-winged teal call. I prefer the one made by Haydel's Game Calls, as its raspy, high-pitched tone closely mimics the actual sound that a teal makes.

Hunting teal in the Mobile Delta can be a challenge to the newcomer. The Delta is an area subject to tidal influence that can be treacherous if you don't pay attention to the tide charts. Be sure to know when the tide is scheduled to start falling. Otherwise, waiting for that last flight of teal to finish your limit may leave you trapped on a mudflat through the next tidal cycle.

The Mobile Delta is not the only place in which teal show up during the early season. Watering holes in cow pastures are excellent for finding teal during September; beaver ponds can be great, too.

After some hunting pressure is felt, teal often head south towards the salt marshes along our coast. The areas south of Bayou La Batre can hold substantial numbers of teal after the opener. Scouting is a must for success in this hit-or-miss area.

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