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Redhead Central

Pushing the limits of food supplies on the Laguna Madre
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  • photo by Tom Reichner
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by Matt Young

Wave after wave of redheads boiled off the water ahead of the boat as we raced across the glassy surface of the Laguna Madre just off the south Texas coast. Driven from their feeding grounds, thousands of the birds lifted into the air in great, milling swarms, only to settle once again on the surrounding flats. Watching the spectacle in awe, we were privileged to be witnessing one of the world's greatest concentrations of wintering redheads, especially in an area open to public waterfowling.

Our host, research scientist Bart Ballard of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, cut the throttle and reversed the engine as we approached a palmetto-brushed blind, staked in the shallows at the edge of a small island dotted with scrub oaks. Formed by rising sea levels roughly 3,000 years ago, the Laguna Madre of Texas has an average depth of less than three feet, and many areas hold barely enough water to float decoys, making shallow-draft boats a necessity to access much of the estuary. Its clear, shallow waters provide ideal growing conditions for shoalgrass, a submersed aquatic plant that is a staple food source for wintering redheads and other waterfowl.

My hunting partners, Dr. Mark Petrie, assistant director of DU's Institute for Wetland and Waterfowl Research, and Dr. Steve Adair, DU's national director of conservation programs, and I hopped from the boat into the knee-deep water and began unloading our hunting gear. When we had safely secured everything in the blind, Ballard departed to hide the boat on the far side of the island.

The first pale light of dawn broke over the flats as we pitched out the decoys amid a classic waterfowling setting that could have come straight from the canvas of Eldridge Hardie or Herb Booth. Ballard came striding down the shoreline just as we finished arranging our mixed spread of diver and puddle duck blocks in separate groups on either side of the blind. An Iowa native, Ballard grew up hunting waterfowl in his home state and moved to south Texas to pursue a career in waterfowl research. His enthusiasm for waterfowling is stronger than ever, despite the countless hours he has spent doing the often tedious work of collecting data for waterfowl research projects.

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