Our Homegrown Waterfowling

Our Homegrown Waterfowling

Florida is blessed with three native species of ducks that can provide dependable wingshooting regardless of the migration numbers. Here's a look at these indigenous species.

Photo by Jeffrey Rich

By Carolee Boyles

When you're around a campfire with a group of hunters and someone starts talking about duck hunting, it's usually not Florida that heads the list of prime destinations. While it may not lead the list, the Sunshine State should at least be somewhere on it.

With as many bodies of water as Florida has, duck hunting opportunities abound. Most lakes and rivers that have public access are open for waterfowl hunting, unless the area is closed for a specific reason, such as in city and county parks or other areas where it's against the law to discharge a firearm.

The birds we can hunt are just as much a part of the Florida landscape as all those lakes and rivers are. The state is blessed with three native species of ducks that can provide dependable hunting regardless of what the spring and summer breeding period was like throughout the rest of the country.

Of the many duck species that are in the state through the winter, three stay year 'round. Wood ducks are the most abundant, but Florida mottled and fulvous whistling ducks are present as well.

If you've hunted waterfowl at all, you've undoubtedly seen a wood duck, which many people consider the most beautiful duck in the country. They're medium-sized birds, with a noticeable crest on their heads. The drakes are brightly colored, although the hens are a plain brownish-gray. Both sexes have a white patch around the eyes and throat.

You can find wood ducks all over Florida. Although they're more abundant in the northern and central parts of the state, they are found all the way down into the Everglades. However, not all the woodies you see during the winter are resident ducks. We also have a migratory population that moves in during the cold months.

Each year, hunters harvest more wood ducks than they do any other species of homegrown duck. According to Diane Eggeman, waterfowl management section leader for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC), hunters have taken an average of about 14,500 wood ducks annually for the past several years, even though the daily bag limit on woodies is only two.

Look for wood ducks in forested or brushy areas around the edges of lakes. Sometimes you can even find them in tiny forest ponds only a few feet across.

The second of the Sunshine State's homegrown ducks is the Florida mottled duck. You may know it as the Florida duck or the Florida mallard. It's a larger bird than the wood duck and from a distance appears very dark-colored. They are darker than mallard hens but not as dark as black ducks. A mottled duck's head and neck are lighter than its back and breast, which is different from either a black duck or a hen mallard. Drakes have a bright yellow to olive green bill with a black spot at the base. Hens have a dull orange bill with black spots.

The Florida mottled duck is found nowhere else in the world. Although there are mottled ducks in Louisiana and Texas, those are a different sub-species.

"The difference between the Florida mottled duck and the ones in Texas and Louisiana is very slight," Eggeman said. "The ones we have here tend to be more inland than the ones in Texas and Louisiana, although you also find some on the coast."

Because the mottled duck is a dabbler, you find them in shallow water such as coastal wetlands, marshes and mangrove swamps.

Biologists have concerns about the future of the mottled duck in Florida. The prairie wetlands that they love are under increasing pressure from development, and their population is small compared to other waterfowl species in the state. Plus, there's a real threat to the Florida mottled duck from the release of feral mallards in the state. Mottled ducks and mallards like the same kind of habitats, including urban and suburban ponds. This isn't a problem when the mallards are wild migratory birds that fly north in the spring to breed and nest.

However, feral mallards hang around all year, so they're here during the breeding season. That leads to situations in which the two species interbreed, resulting in ducks that are neither mottled nor mallards.

"In areas around the world where people have released mallards where they aren't native, there's a history of extinction," Eggeman explained.

Whether this could happen with the Florida mottled duck is unclear, but biologists are working on a contingency plan to be certain it doesn't. As a consequence of several factors, including the threat from interbreeding, there's a bag limit of one bird per day on the mottled duck.

The third bird in this Florida trio is the fulvous whistling duck. This waterfowl species is more closely related to geese than it is to most ducks, and you can spot that when you see a group of them standing around the edges of a pond. They have long necks and legs, which give them a goose-like profile.

The drakes and hens look alike, with tawny-brown heads, chests and bellies, and dark brown wings and backs. White-tipped wing feathers create a silvery border between the belly and wings.

The fulvous whistling duck has only been around in Florida since the 1960s. It's most often found in South Florida, in areas where rice is produced. In the winter some stay in Florida, but others fly south - somewhere. Biologists believe they go to Cuba, since some ducks banded here in the Sunshine State have been recovered there, but since they haven't been able to do any research on the island, and they don't have a lot of communication with biologists there, a lot of questions remain to be answered.

During the past few years, biologists have started seeing another duck that appears headed to being put on the list of Florida's homegrown waterfowl. The first black-bellied whistling ducks in the state escaped from what was then the Crandon Park Zoo in Miami in 1968. Those birds bred in the area for about five years but then vanished. About the same time, a few started showing up mixed in with flocks of fulvous whistling ducks. Finally in 1981, a small flock of black-bellied whistling ducks spent the winter in Sarasota County. When spring came, several birds stayed. The number of these ducks has gradually increased and they have spread, with a very similar range expansion to that of the fulvous whistling duck 25 years earlier.

There are an incredible number of places to duck hunt in Florida. Virtually anywhere there's open water - or in the case of wood ducks, any water - duck hunting is possible.

The FWCC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintain a number of areas that are open for public waterfowl hunting. Here's a quick look at some of the better ones.

T.M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area
Located in the Upper St. Johns River basin, the T.M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area (WMA) comprises 3,870 acres of restored wetlands. Goodwin WMA is a cooperative project of the North American Wetlands Conservation Council, Ducks Unlimited (DU), and the FWCC, using land owned by the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD).

Goodwin was developed through DU as a Matching Aid to Restore States' Habitats (MARSH) project. Established in 1985, the MARSH program provides matching funds to the states to develop wetland projects.

The Broadmoor Marsh Unit of Goodwin was developed in 2002. Like the Goodwin Unit, Broadmoor Marsh is a wetland restoration project. Its 2,400 acres were developed with funds from the Natural Resources Conservation Service through the Wetland Reserve Program, also on SJRWMD lands.

In total, both units offer 3,000 acres of managed impoundments; the rest of the area is maintained as open marsh habitat. Management activities on these areas include water level manipulation, prescribed burning, mechanical disturbance of some sites, and chemical control.

Hunting dates on the Goodwin and Broadmoor Marsh units are very limited. Usually these consist of seven days in January, plus a youth hunt in late January or early February. All hunters in both units must stop on the way in and out at the check station.

The area can be reached via State Route (SR) 507 between Palm Bay to the north and Fellsmere on the south. At the Brevard-Indian River county line, turn west on Fellsmere Grade. Continue 6 1/2 miles along the grade, following the signs to the WMA.

For more information about the T.M. Goodwin Unit or the Broadmoor Marsh Unit, contact the Waterfowl Management Section Office at (321) 726-2862.

Guana River WMA
In St. Johns County, the Guana River WMA offers more than 9,800 acres of managed wetlands, including Lake Ponte Vedra, a 2,300-acre brackish impoundment. This WMA attracts a number of duck species, including teal and many diving ducks.

Lake Ponte Vedra is open for recreational use for two miles north of Guana Dam at all times. The remainder of the impoundment and the lakes on the interior of the WMA are only open from mid-February through mid-November. Lake Ponte Vedra is open for hunting only during the early duck season, during the first day of each phase, and on Wednesdays and Sundays of the regular duck and coot season. In addition, the interior lakes are open for hunting only during the general gun and small game seasons when the FWCC-established duck and coot season coincides with those days.

Access to the WMA is allowed through Guana Dam only. There are other special regulations on this area as well. To obtain a brochure regarding hunting dates and regulations, contact the Guana River WMA office at (904) 825-6877.

The WMA entrance is on the west side of SR A1A, 15 miles south of Jacksonville and 13 miles north of St. Augustine.

Stormwater Treatment Area 5
Stormwater Treatment Area 5 is a 5,200-acre manipulated wetland that's designed to reduce the amount of phosphorus flowing into the Everglades and Rotenberger Wildlife Management Area. The plants in this manmade wetland filter phosphorus out of the water as they grow. Eventually the plants transfer much of the phosphorus in the soil.

Area 5 was built at a cost of more than $37 million and is one of six such treatment areas that have been mandated by Florida's Everglades Forever Act. Over time, these impoundments will help sawgrass replace cattails and return the entire Everglades ecosystem to a healthier condition.

When hunting the area, be aware that it is filled with water control structures and pieces of monitoring equipment. Any damage to these facilities as a result of public access could lead to restrictions on the use of the tract.

The waterfowl-hunting access to Area 5 is a cooperative effort of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and the FWCC.

Area 5 is open to hunting only on a limited number of days. Advance reservations to hunt on this area are mandatory. Calls for duck-hunting reservations are accepted only from 5 to 6 p.m. on the Mondays listed in the area brochure. No reservations will be given to callers at any other times. For more information or to get a copy of the brochure, call the South Region office of the FWCC at (561) 625-5122.

Lake Harbor Public Waterfowl Area
If you're interested in hunting some mottled ducks, Lake Harbor Public Waterfowl Area (PWA) is the place to go. Lake Harbor covers a 600-acre farm field in the Everglades Agricultural Area, south of Lake Okeechobee. This PWA is another MARSH project that was created in 1987. A cooperating farmer raises rice, sugar cane and crawfish on the land, while hunting on the field is administered by the FWCC.

The area has special regulations and is open to hunting only on designated days. Hunters must make advanced reservations. A brochure detailing the dates and regulations is available from the FWCC South Region office. The telephone number is (561) 625-5133.

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