Teal Time

Blue-winged teal start heading south in August


Photo © Chuck Heiting

By Matt Young

During the dog days of August, when much of North America is still sweltering under intense summer heat, blue-winged teal are already beginning their long migration south.

Mature drakes are typically first to leave the breeding grounds, followed by adult hens and juvenile birds, which have only recently developed primary feathers required for flying. By Labor Day, large flights of teal are on the move, riding the cool winds of early cold fronts. For waterfowl enthusiasts, the appearance of these swift little ducks is a welcome harbinger of autumn following a long, hot summer.

The migration habits of blue-winged teal set them apart from other North American waterfowl. They not only migrate earlier than other waterfowl species-including the more cold-tolerant green-winged teal-they also journey faster and farther from their breeding grounds. Many bluewings blow through the U.S. in a matter of days, stopping only briefly along the way to feed and rest.

The majority of the population follows the Central and Mississippi flyways, with fewer numbers migrating down the Atlantic Flyway. Blue-winged teal are relatively uncommon in the Pacific Flyway, where they are greatly outnumbered by their close relatives, cinnamon teal.

In early fall, hot, dry weather can limit the habitat available for migrating teal, other waterfowl, and shorebirds. Wetlands conserved by Ducks Unlimited and its partners under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP) provide critical feeding and resting areas for the birds during the fall migration, and again in the spring as they return north to their breeding grounds.

In many areas of the southern and central U.S., DU encourages farmers participating in its private lands program to begin flooding portions of harvested croplands and moist soil areas just as the first flights of teal and other early-migrating wetland birds begin to arrive. These privately managed habitats, along with wetlands on federal and state waterfowl management areas, serve as oases for the birds while migrating across parched, autumn landscapes.

Although small numbers of blue-winged teal winter in the extreme southern U.S., most of the birds continue flying south to wintering areas in Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean. A few wayfaring individuals cross the equator, including a blue-winged teal banded near Renoun, Saskatchewan, which was shot six months later in Peru-7,000 miles away. Cinnamon teal, which have similar migration habits as blue-winged teal, largely winter in Mexico and Central America, where they intermingle with wintering bluewings in some areas.

Blue-winged and cinnamon teal are among several species of waterfowl and other migratory birds that benefit from wetlands conserved by Ducks Unlimited of Mexico (DUMAC). The organization focuses its habitat restoration efforts in 28 critical wetland systems in Mexico, where more than 80 percent of waterfowl in that nation spend the winter.

DUMAC also is working to map and classify wetland habitats using geographic information systems, which display layers of landscape data derived from satellites and other sources in a user-friendly map format. This technology is helping DU identify areas of greatest importance to wintering waterfowl and work with the government to protect and restore them.

Until recently, little was known about the extent or health of wetland habitats visited by teal and other North American waterfowl beyond the borders of Mexico. DU recently has expanded its sphere of influence into Latin America and the Caribbean to help determine the significance of these wetland habitats to blue-winged teal and other migratory birds from this continent, as well as a great diversity of indigenous species.

As a global authority on wetlands and waterfowl conservation, DU is helping government agencies and other conservation organizations in several Latin American and Caribbean nations to coordinate waterfowl surveys, map wetland habitats, and assess the need for habitat conservation efforts.

In the spring, bluewings are among the last of North America's waterfowl to return to their breeding grounds, typically in late April and early May. Unlike many waterfowl species that often return to the same nesting areas year after year, bluewings are more opportunistic birds and may nest wherever they find suitable habitat.

During wet springs on the southern High Plains, thousands of bluewings stop to breed on wetlands in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado. Lesser numbers of bluewings nest as far south as Texas and Louisiana in years when tropical storms have filled shallow wetland basins amid expanses of coastal prairie.

Although blue-winged teal nest as far north as Alaska, more than three-quarters of the surveyed population breed in the Prairie Pothole Region of the north central U.S. and Canada.

In 1999, more than 3.5 million breeding bluewings settled in North and South Dakota, where several consecutive years of unusually wet weather created record numbers of wetlands, and where farmers participating in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) have returned several million acres of former croplands to grass cover. 

Flight Leaders

Many waterfowlers perceive blue-winged teal to be among the fastest-flying waterfowl.

Question: Which of the following duck species has been clocked at the fastest air speed?

1. Blue-winged teal
2. Mallard
3. Pintail
4. Canvasback
5. Red-breasted merganser

Answer: Red-breasted Merganser was clocked at 100 mph while being chased by an airplane.

Source: The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds The September Seasons