How Do Texas Summers Impact the Following Fall’s Ducks?
Q&A with TPWD’s Waterfowl Habitat Specialist
I’VE NEVER BEEN MUCH of a duck nut, but I’ve been around long enough to know that no two Texas duck hunting seasons are ever the same.
Such is the case with Texas summers. Each one is entirely different. True, you can always count on the sweltering heat around here, but you can never—ever—depend on the moisture.
Some may not realize it, but timely spring and summer rainfall can play a vital role in the quality of Texas fall and winter duck seasons from one year to the next. That’s largely because moisture feeds the soil that grows the forage on which wintering waterfowl feed.
Take offseason rainfall out of the equation and the all-important habitat is almost certain to suffer to some degree. It could cause migrant ducks to look elsewhere to find food once they arrive.
Jared Laing of Lindale is a hardcore duck guy who knows a thing or two about ducks and duck habitat. Laing, 41, is a 10-year veteran waterfowl biologist who specializes in waterfowl habitat management with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
His experience extends well beyond Texas marshes, playas and riverbottoms, too. In Spring 2018, Laing spent a full month assisting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service in conducting the Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey.
The annual survey is carried out by air. Ground crews assess duck populations and habitat conditions on the more than two million square miles that encompass the main breeding areas of many species of North America’s waterfowl. Laing, who flew into parts of northern Ontario, northern Quebec, Labrador and Newfoundland, called it the highlight of his career thus far.
“It was a phenomenal experience,” he said.
We recently caught up with Laing. We pitched him a few questions as to how habitat conditions can impact duck numbers and Texas hunting seasons. Here’s what he had to say.
TF&G: How does Texas’s summer weather influence duck hunting success?
Laing: “What happens in Texas when the birds aren’t here plays a huge role in what happens in Texas when the birds return. Moist springs and moderately dry summers are critical for maintaining ‘good’ waterfowl habitat in Texas.
“When discussing good wintering waterfowl habitat in Texas it depends a lot on the species. Dabblers use mostly shallow-water habitats and have a high percentage of seeds in the diet. Divers typically use deeper water and consume more vegetation and aquatic invertebrates. Let’s just focus on dabblers.
“Waterfowl diets shift throughout the year, especially winter and spring. Upon arrival, dabblers typically seek a high-energy diet (mostly seeds) to replenish reserves used during migration and to prepare for winter. Later on they’ll feed more on aquatic invertebrates to incorporate protein and calcium for feather molt and to build reserves for egg laying. During this time, they still need high-energy foods to maintain high fat levels for their upcoming northward migration.
“The natural wet/dry cycle allows many habitats to meet these needs perfectly. In a normal wet/dry cycle, Texas wetlands, lakes, and ponds undergo a gradual drawdown as spring progresses to summer. This allows for the bare ground needed by annual plant seeds to germinate.
“We typically get periodic rains throughout the summer, which allows annual plants to thrive and produce seeds. We typically get fall and winter rains that refill areas that have been dried out over summer, which floods areas and makes seeds available to waterfowl while also kick starting the process of growing invertebrates.
“Invertebrate populations will continue to build through the winter. This cycle naturally complements waterfowl nutritional requirements. It is critical for good wintering habitat to maintain annual seed producing plants. The two most desirable food plants for wintering waterfowl in Texas are barnyard grass and pink smartweed. Both plants are annuals and must produce seeds for a successful crop of food plants next year.”
TF&G: Attracting and holding ducks in Texas is all about weather, water, food and habitat, right?
Laing: “Correct. Timely summer rainfall grows lots of food. Then, fall rains come to flood the summer-produced food making it available to ducks arriving on the wintering grounds. If only it were that simple though. In actuality, current habitat conditions are the result of more than a snapshot in time, but rather a swinging pendulum of events that stack on top of each other to make current habitat conditions what they are.”
TF&G: Do the best/worst summer conditions for fall/winter hunting vary in the region of the state?
Laing: “Good conditions for wintering ducks are the same throughout the state, it just takes different timing, rainfall amounts, and temperatures depending on where you are. In general, “normal” years, with wet winters, damp springs; intermittent summer/fall precipitation and good winters tend to make great wintering waterfowl habitat conditions in Texas.
“I’ve seen the best years in East Texas with wet springs, moderately dry summers, damp falls and slightly flooded winters. Out west, water at any time typically leads to increased waterfowl use, especially when it leads to pooled water in the winter.”
TF&G: Even in years when forecasts indicate duck numbers are up, it seems like a lot of Texas hunters still wind up singing the blues for a lack of birds. This is especially true in East Texas. Some hunters contend the flyway has shifted to the west, or that the birds are stopping short of Texas for some reason. What are your thoughts?
Laing: “Of note, people regularly misuse the term “flyway” to speak of how birds travel in a location or an area or from one place to another. In reality, a flyway is nothing more than a regulatory term used in management of migratory birds that denotes generalized broad pathways of migration. Generally, birds follow migratory pathways, though there is a lot of flyway hopping and moving north/south/and back north again, even during the waterfowl season.
“Interestingly, we are just starting to explore the complexities of migration through new remote tracking technologies. Birds change their patterns and habitat use for many reasons. These patterns and use are dictated on a landscape scale much larger than any one piece of property in East Texas.
“In Texas, our mid-winter waterfowl survey has shown an increasing trend in birds using non-traditional habitats and areas within the state, especially stock ponds in the Oakwoods, Blackland Prairie and Rolling Plains Eco regions. While waterfowl abundance in most Eco regions is increasing, waterfowl numbers in the Gulf Coast are declining. The Oakwoods and Blackland Prairies surpassed the Gulf Coast three of the last five years, wintering in excess of one million birds one of those years.
“I know of several hunters who have had great seasons the past few years. They are successful because they spend more time scouting and seeking new locations instead of going to the same old places and expecting the ducks to magically show up the morning they go hunting.”
TF&G: In what areas of the U.S. and Canada does most reproduction occur? Any species-specific percentages available?
Laing: “Typically, the prairie provinces of Canada and the prairie pothole regions of the U.S. are the hotspots for waterfowl reproduction, though that can vary by year depending on habitat conditions. These areas are important for many species, including mallard, gadwall, blue and green-winged teal, northern shoveler, norther pintail, lesser scaup, redhead, and a few others. Most other species typically nest farther north and are spread out over a much greater area.”
TF&G: What types of conditions up north are conducive to optimum breeding success?
Laing: “For the prairie pothole region we like a wet, grassy landscape. The more choices they have to nest in dense grass close to water, the greater their chances of successfully reproducing and rearing young. The boreal forest habitat types rely more on snow and ice melt to fill lakes, string bogs, and beaver ponds, so a heavy snow and ice pack with a normal to early spring typically lead to good production conditions for species utilizing those habitats.”
TF&G: What conditions lend to poor breeding success?
Laing: “Poor breeding success is usually caused by dry breeding grounds. Habitat loss and change also can play a significant role. These can be further amplified by certain agricultural practices around potholes, conversion of boreal forest to farmland, strip mining, improper forest management activities, etc. Fortunately these birds are resilient and can have huge population increases in good years.”
TF&G: Do these factors apply to all ducks?
Laing: “Yes. Wet landscapes typically mean good duck production.”
TF&G: This story is set to run in June. Do you have any insight yet as to what numbers are looking like this year for the primary ducks we see in Texas?
Laing: “Nothing yet, but the breeding grounds are looking fair to good right now as far as precipitation goes. Keep an eye on precipitation levels up north to get a basic idea of production. Wet prairies usually mean good production. You can also keep an eye on the pilot biologist blogs on USWFS websites as the surveys start and conclude for regional updates as they are being flown.”
In this episode of Duckology Delta Waterfowl’s Dr. Frank Rohwer compares the egg sizes of various puddle and diver ducks.
—story by MATT WILLIAMS