This year’s exceptional drought could have significant impacts on waterfowl this fall as habitats these migrants rely upon continue to degrade under a hot, dry Texas sun. The upshot for hunters: it won’t be a banner waterfowl season in Texas, but those who are mobile and do their homework have a shot at decent and even potentially great waterfowl hunting in some places.
Between 5-to-6 million waterfowl on average call Texas home over the winter and this year’s migration is expected to be huge due to excellent habitat conditions throughout the breeding grounds in the Dakotas and southern Canada. Unfortunately, these birds will likely get a warm, dry Texas welcome when they begin arriving in September.
“The same weather pattern that has left us high and dry has continued to bless the entire waterfowl breeding grounds up north with tremendous amounts of moisture,” says Kevin Kraai, waterfowl program leader with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “We’re projecting duck numbers as good as we have ever seen.”
According to this year’s duck breeding population survey, which is conducted annually, most duck species are enjoying substantial gains. Shovelers, redheads and bluewinged teal reached record highs and pintail surpassed 4 million for the first time since 1980.
Weather projection models indicate very little relief from the drought in Texas heading into September’s early teal season and dry conditions will have a severe impact on migration for months to come. And while the Aug. 4 NOAA U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook shows intense drought continuing in most of Texas through October, the forecast also shows a possibility of some improvement along the Texas coast.
“The drought has impacted the wetlands, marshes, reservoirs, ponds, creeks and bottomlands across the state,” Kraai notes. “Natural food production will most certainly be limiting in many areas.”
The playa wetlands associated with the High Plains are another story all together. This drought has left these shallow water bodies high and dry now for months. What little vegetation that remained or attempted to grow in these wetlands has mostly been utilized by cattle grazing simply because it is the last green succulent vegetation available on the landscape
“It’s a bit too late for plant growth and seed development, so if and when it starts raining, the most important factor in successful hunting for ducks and geese in the High Plains will be water in close proximity to available irrigated waste grain,” Kraai predicts. “If things stay the way we see it now, those areas should be largely associated with more reliable water sources near urban areas and feed lots.”
The impacts of the drought on Texas’ primary waterfowl wintering area along the Gulf Coast Prairies and Marshes have been severe. Marshes are dry and those areas still holding water have become extremely salty. The high salinities are crippling fresh and brackish marsh vegetation, and adversely impacting even some of the more salt tolerant vegetation.
“The whole system is just not going to yield the food resources that we would like to see,” says Kraai. “But, the dry conditions are aiding in control of some of the less desirable plants, like deep-rooted sedge, cattail and phragmites, and drought has even allowed land managers the opportunity to open up some densely vegetated wetlands by disking and mowing areas previously impossible to access by mechanical means.”
If conditions do not improve, duck hunters could see birds “flaring” before they even cross the border into Texas. Waterfowl have an uncanny sense of assessing habitat conditions during migration and could bypass the Lone Star State entirely.
“They don’t just fly blindly in a traditional direction hoping that they will find favorable conditions just because that is where they were last year,” says Kraai. “They will set their migration sights to where there is ample food and water.”
A good example of waterfowl responding to habitat conditions was illustrated with recent telemetry data that showed a hen pintail on the coast of Louisiana that reverse migrated more than 500 miles in the dead of winter to Missouri in response to a flood event that created tons of very productive new habitat.
“Waterfowl have a tendency to know where the best habitat on the landscape can be found to carry out their annual life cycles, often from hundreds of miles away,” says Kraai.
Absent suitable habitat in Texas, waterfowl have plenty of options — head east to the Mississippi Flyway, stay further north or even south to Mexico.
“The ones that do venture to less the productive habitats we are expecting in Texas this fall are expected be sensitive to disturbance and hunting pressure,” Kraai predicts. “They will certainly have the potential to leave in quick order for greener pastures. Assuming no significant changes in weather, our wintering waterfowl in Texas are up for grabs by our neighbors this winter.
On the positive side many of the Texas wetland ecosystems need periods of dryness for some annual seed producing wetland plants to germinate. So, receding reservoirs and ponds across the Rolling Plains and Blackland Prairies may be a potential bright spot, assuming the rain finally comes this fall and winter. The record populations of redheads and much improved pintail populations point to potential great waterfowling opportunity among seagrass beds in bays and estuaries along the middle and lower Texas coast.
“Dryness tends to concentrate waterfowl in the more favorable places and I feel very confident that there will certainly be some hunters in parts of the state that will have excellent waterfowl hunting for no other reasons than the lack of water concentrating birds in some places and the sheer magnitude of the fall waterfowl flight,” says Kraai.
“There is always water somewhere in the state of Texas and some of it will be near good food resources like peanuts, rice and corn. I am confident some fortunate landowners and hunters that receive rainfall or have access to water either from wells or irrigation canals are potentially going to experience a season they will soon not forget. Scouting and mobility during the season will be key this to successful waterfowling this coming year.”