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.