Our Home-Grown Woodies

Our Home-Grown Woodies

Wood ducks are the Peach State's most numerous quackers and most dependable target for wingshooting. So how are our native ducks faring? Let's have a look.

Photo by Eric Dressier

By Jeff Samsel

Royal in appearance, with a green-crested crown, white highlights, burgundy chest, golden flanks and blue wings, the wood duck reigns as king of Georgia's ducks. More than half the ducks killed in the Peach State every winter are woodies, and some years the figure soars upward of 60 percent. These small, colorful ducks abound in wooded wetlands throughout the state.

Wood ducks carry an added appeal for many Georgia hunters, because a lot of woodies are home-grown. Large numbers of wood ducks breed in Georgia wetlands and spend the entire year here. In fact, the wood duck's common Southern moniker of "summer duck" comes from the fact that they are commonly seen throughout the summer, when ducks of other species have migrated north.

However, not all wood ducks killed in Georgia are locally reared birds. According to Greg Balkcom, statewide waterfowl biologist for the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division (WRD), that is a common misconception. In fact, the overwhelming majority of our wood ducks are not home grown. Banding research indicates that Georgia birds make up only 17 percent of the annual wood duck harvest.

"Most folks think the wood ducks are all raised here," Balkcom said. "The truth is that most of our wood ducks come from other parts of the Atlantic Flyway. Georgia hunters have killed wood ducks that were banded in every state in the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways."

Balkcom noted that virtually all of the wood ducks on the Atlantic Flyway spend their winters in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina or Florida. Add in Georgia-bred birds that stay home, and the Peach State woodie population is always quite large during duck season.

Band returns reveal that of Georgia-bred birds that hatch below the Fall Line, almost all stay in Georgia. Of those hatched farther north in the Peach State, roughly two-thirds stay home. Interestingly, the rest migrate west and only slightly south, crossing flyways to spend their winters in the southern part of the Central Flyway.

Actual wood-duck numbers are very difficult to quantify, which is a big part of why the wood duck limit remains only two birds, despite consistently abundant numbers in Georgia wetlands. Traditional waterfowl surveys are conducted by airplane, and woodies are virtually impossible to count from the air because they spend most of their time in wooded wetlands, where they cannot be seen.

Other types of population assessments, based on band-return data, Christmas bird counts, breeding duck counts, harvest numbers throughout the flyway, and other types of work do offer some indication of wood duck numbers, and those assessments point toward a slight general increase in wood duck numbers.

Waterfowl biologists within the Atlantic Flyway are seeking to increase the amount of data they have available on wood duck numbers, partly with the hope of being able to have variable wood duck limits, according to population trends.

"We have to be very careful with limits, however, when we have the entire flyway's wood duck population in one area during the season," Balkcom said.

Various factors certainly have contributed to increases in wood duck numbers. One likely key among them has been an increase in beaver numbers in several states. Over the years, Balkcom has observed that beaver ponds offer ideal wood duck habitat, and local increases in beaver numbers seem to go hand in hand with increases in the wood duck population. Beaver numbers have increased throughout the eastern United States in recent years due both to work done by wildlife agencies and to a decrease in fur market prices and, consequently, trapping interest.

Wood duck boxes, rectangular wooden boxes that provide nesting cavities for wood ducks, also have proved to be a real boon to woodies in recent years. The WRD maintains more than 2,300 such boxes on wildlife management areas (WMAs) throughout the state, and those boxes produced an estimated 9,000 ducklings this spring.

"Add in the boxes put up by private land owners or conservation organizations, and you are looking at the possibility of tens of thousands of wood ducks being produced," Balkcom said.

The Georgia Waterfowl Association has a wood duck box project that has a stated goal of building, installing and maintaining 7,000 of the structures in Georgia wetlands. More than 3,000 boxes are already in place from the project, which began in 2000. Outside Georgia's borders, similar programs are carried out by game departments, private landowners and various organizations throughout the wood ducks' breeding range.

Wood ducks are cavity nesters, meaning they establish their nests in holes in trees. Even areas that offer very good habitat for adult wood ducks won't support breeding activity if there are no trees with large enough holes in them for the nests. Where timber has been cut around a wetland at one time, for example, most trees are not likely to have any suitable sized cavities in them.

"Wood duck boxes can be put up for two main reasons," Balkcom said. "The first is to add nesting cavities in an area where natural cavities might be lacking. The second reason is to provide safer nesting cavities. A wood duck box put up over water with a predator guard on the post is a far safer place for a nest, providing protection against rat snakes and other predators."

Wood ducks, as their name suggests, prefer woody habitat. In fact, they rarely stray far from wooded wetlands associated with creeks and rivers. Dabbling ducks - so called because they tilt down in the water to feed instead of diving - feed primarily on acorns during fall and winter. Acorns provide the fat that woodies need through the cool months. During the spring, when breeding activity takes place and higher protein levels are needed, they switch primarily to a diet of insects.

In order to provide good wood duck habitat, an area must have plenty of acorn-producing hardwoods. In addition, wood ducks require plenty of brush or other cover close to the water for protection. Reclusive birds, wood ducks spend their days in sloughs, along river edges or in beaver ponds, typically under cover or quite close to it.

Except to flee a threat, wood ducks seldom fly much during the day. The best wingshooting, therefore, typically takes place early in the morning, when the woodies leave their roost sites and fly to feeding areas. Later in the day, most wood duck hunting is done by jump-sh

ooting birds while wading or floating streams.

Balkcom pointed toward beaver ponds throughout Georgia as prime areas for wood duck hunting. He suggested that hunters get set up while it's still dark and be prepared for pass-shooting opportunities when the woodies fly from roost sites to feeding sites first thing in the morning. Many hunters get their wood duck shots early and then hang out awhile longer, just in case any mallards or other ducks make an appearance.

In addition to beaver ponds, backwater sloughs around lowland rivers provide similar habitat and very good shooting opportunities. Balkcom suggested that hunters look for cover that wood ducks would be able to hide in and for oak trees over the water or very near to it.

"Water oaks are good to look for because they are common in those types of areas and they have fairly small acorns, which are easy for wood ducks to eat," he said.

Balkcom pointed out that wood ducks don't tend to respond to calls or come in to spreads of decoys like most other ducks.

"I have found that if a hunter is set up with a small set of decoys and does just a little bit of calling, wood ducks sometimes alter their path a bit just to check out what's over there," he said. "Sometimes that gets them just close enough to provide good shots."

In addition to setting up in beaver ponds or other wooded wetlands, another effective way to hunt wood ducks is to wade up a fairly small stream, jumping birds from cover along the edges. Creek hunters must learn to wade with a great deal of stealth in order to keep birds from flying while they are still out of shooting range. That means moving slowly and quietly. In addition, it means dressing in a good woodsy camouflage pattern and using banks and shoreline obstructions for concealment. Creek hunters must learn to be stalkers and be ready for ducks to pop up at all times.

For slightly larger streams, especially those that have water that is too deep to wade through, an alternative approach is to float hunt with a canoe or other small boat. Hunters may not shoot from a boat if the boat is moving under the propulsion of any type of motor, but movement from paddle power or current is fine.

Float hunters typically do best by working in teams, with the person in the back of the boat handling the paddling while the person in the front remains ready to shoot. They can then alternate positions after each shot taken or duck killed. Again, a quiet approach is absolutely essential, and the paddler should keep the boat tight to the bank. Also, the shooter must always be ready, especially when cover lies just downstream or when the boat slips around a bend.

Balkcom said that largest percentage of Georgia wood duck hunting probably takes place on private lands. This does not mean, however, that public-land opportunities are minimal. In fact, waterfowl hunters probably enjoy widespread opportunity to target woodies on public property more than they do any other duck species.

"I'd say that just about every wildlife management area in the state of Georgia has at least one place on it where someone can hunt wood ducks," Balkcom opined. "It might be a beaver pond or other small wetland, or it might be a creek that runs through the property."

Hunters who want to target woodies need to spend some time looking at maps of WMAs close to home or in the area they want to hunt, and then scout out the ponds and creeks to see what they look like. You need to look for oak trees and for the cover that wood ducks require, then consider how and where to set up or formulate a plan for working a creek. Maps provide good starting points, but they only paint part of the picture.

Spending some time scouting close to the season might also provide clues to where the birds roost and to flight patterns to feeding areas. However, as Balkcom noted, flight patterns are apt to change often - at times daily - based on food supplies and other factors like wind direction and water levels. In backwaters along river bottoms, for example, the ducks are apt to find the best feeding conditions in different locations when the river is high and goes way back into the trees than when the flooded area is much smaller.

Some of the most popular and traditionally productive public areas for wood duck hunting are those WMAs that border major rivers within the Coastal Plain, Balkcom noted. Woodies make heavy use of wooded backwaters along these rivers, and several Coastal Plain WMAs offer plenty of room for duck hunters to spread out in.

Along the Savannah River, Balkcom pointed toward Tuckahoe WMA as a traditionally productive wood duck hunting area. Tuckahoe covers more than 15,000 acres near Sylvania, including swamps, Savannah River oxbows and a handful of tributary creeks. A network of dirt roads provides access to several parts of the WMA. Some wood duck hunting areas, however, are better accessed by boat.

Along the Ocmulgee River, Balkcom suggested Bullard Creek WMA and Horse Creek WMA, which are located east and west of Hazlehurst, respectively. Bullard Creek spreads over 13,993 acres and includes extensive backwaters, plus the namesake Bullard Creek. One tract is accessible only by boat or foot. Horse Creek adds another 8,392 acres on the north side of the Ocmulgee. Boats probably provide the best access to most wood-duck hunting areas on both WMAs along the Ocmulgee River.

Moving downstream in the same watershed, hunters find extensive opportunity to hunt wood ducks along the Altamaha River. This large coastal river has a broad flood plain and four major WMAs spread along it. Big Hammock, Griffin Ridge, Sansavilla and Altamaha WMAs encompass a combined 62,301 acres, of which a good percentage offers quality wood duck habitat. Hunters who spend some time scouting and get into good spots early are apt to enjoy very good shooting along the Altamaha.

Altamaha WMA is the largest of the four areas along its namesake river, covering 29,278 acres at the far lower end of the river. One of the state's most popular waterfowl hunting areas, Altamaha is open on a limited number of days of the week for waterfowl hunting and quotas apply to some areas. Hunters should check this year's regulations for details before planning outings.

All four WMAs offer extensive backwater areas, tributary creeks and main-river hunting opportunities. Big Hammock and Griffin Ridge, which cover 6,946 and 5,616 acres, respectively, are made up almost completely of lowland areas that are sometimes flooded, depending on the river level.

Similar prospects can be found on WMAs along several other coastal rivers, including the Flint, Ohoopee and Satilla, plus various creeks that have broad backwaters. Wood duck populations are good throughout Georgia, so hunters simply need to spend some time exploring and then try out potentially productive areas.

In addition to a hunting license, duck hunters need state and federal duck stamps, plus a free Migratory Bird Hunting Lice

nse (H.I.P. permit). A WMA license is also needed for hunting on WMA lands. Migratory bird hunting regulations and bag limits are available on the Web at www.georgiawildlife.com.

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