By Scott Stephens, Ph.D.
The opening weekend of the waterfowl season in Manitoba provided me with the opportunity to continue a tradition I began last season, which was my first on the prairies
of Manitoba. My new tradition is to focus on blue-winged teal in the early part of the season, before they make their hasty departure for points south. You would be hard pressed to find tastier table fare than early season bluewings. The other important part of this tradition is that my hunting partner is my son, who is now anxiously awaiting his 12th birthday, when he'll be able to tote his own shotgun and harvest his own birds. This past Friday found my truck loaded with all the appropriate gear for camping and pursuing bluewings.
Once again we hunted on a large Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC)
project west of Brandon, Manitoba. Last year we found high water on this project as a result of a big snowpack and spring runoff. This year, after a relatively snowless winter and dry summer, conditions had changed significantly, and we had to adjust our tactics accordingly. The area where we successfully shot two limits of teal last year was bone dry, so we had to look for new opportunities. But the main ingredient for good blue-winged teal habitat—shallow water—remains constant. We found shallow water on the west end of the DUC project, and there were good numbers of teal there as well. We had a great weekend and were able to leave Sunday morning with 12 teal, one pintail and five snipe for our efforts. Most of the ducks we harvested were young birds produced this spring, so it appears that we had good production of blue-winged teal again in 2012.
Perhaps the most striking thing about our trip was how different habitat conditions were across southwestern Manitoba this year. The prairie climate is characterized by dramatic swings from drought to deluge, and the past two years represented both ends of that spectrum. However, a drier landscape with fewer wetlands does not necessarily mean more challenging hunting conditions in the fall. At times, abundant water can be a mixed blessing. In years when attractive wetlands are found over every hill, ducks that are harassed by hunters can simply hop over the next rise to find a safe resting place. This fall, I believe fewer available wetlands across the landscape will concentrate the birds and reward waterfowlers who do their homework and find the spots holding the ducks.
It's important to remember that while healthy duck populations
contribute to hunting success, many other factors, like weather and habitat conditions, also play an important role. Scouting and being prepared to respond to different habitat conditions will be essential for waterfowlers across this continent.
For now, early fall weather across the prairies of Canada won't provide much motivation for any big movement of waterfowl, except for a few species like blue-winged teal. As we transition into October, the weather will begin to change, and freeze-up will inevitably chase the ducks south, where I know many other waterfowlers will anxiously await their arrival. In the meantime, I hope to enjoy a front-row seat to as much of the spectacle as I can before freeze-up.
DU Canada biologist Dr. Scott Stephens is an Iowa native who has been an avid waterfowler since his late teens. Based at Oak Hammock Marsh in Stonewall, Manitoba, he oversees DUC's conservation programs on the prairies. He routinely posts reports on the Ducks Unlimited Migration Map.