Aerial Acrobats

There’s no better time than now to beat the sunlight to the swamps and score on a limit of woodies.

It is a half hour before sunup on a crisp November day in the deep woods. Migratory waterfowl hunting season is open, and it’s legal shooting time.Two camo-clad figures with shotguns resting in the crook of their arms wait impatiently as minutes tick by.

In the pink glow cast by the rising sun, wood ducks suddenly appear, hurtling out of a roost in the Atchafalaya Swamp as if launched from catapults, heading west, toward the waiting hunters.

Leading the way are the inevitable early birds among the flock, vacating the resort in ones and twos on a beeline to distant feeding grounds. Gunfire along far perimeters of the roost marks their passage.

A shotgun blast nearby followed seconds later by a splash on the water some 30 feet away records a hit by Iberville Parish outdoorsman James Walker.

Although he watched the falling woodie, a drake flying solo, all the way to splashdown to be sure it was a clean kill, the dusky bird was hard to pinpoint in the dim understory. Finally he did; it lay unmoving. Memorizing its location, he gave the OK sign, and we returned our attention to the ongoing flight, now in full swing with squadrons of a dozen or more lifting off to join the exodus from the roost. In a chorus of taunting whistles, they dodged tree limbs and heaved into the open sky.

As it turned out, we had the unaccustomed luxury of choosing our shots because woodies winged steadily overhead at varying heights. There was no need to try long shots that might result in crippled birds and a loss of precious minutes attempting to retrieve them.

A surer bet was drakes flying treetop level and below; hens were passed over. Brightening skies made distinguishing the sexes easy, males being notably darker than females.

With one bird down, Jim focused on a couple of drakes coming his way, and crumpled one of them to round out his limit. Almost as soon as it began, the shoot was over.

A wood duck hunt is long on excitement, but very short in time. As compensation of sorts after the shooting is over, it’s enjoyable to linger on the border of a roost and watch the agile birds perform.

Masters of precision flying, wood ducks could have been the inspiration for the term “turn on a dime.” Equipped with superb braking power, they perform right-angle turns and vertical drops at full throttle, enter woodpecker holes in brood trees and 4-inch circles cut in man-made nest boxes.

The ability to abruptly put on the brakes and change direction has fooled many a hunter into thinking they’ve bagged two birds with one shot when the second of a pair in flight, seeing its companion tumble from the sky, assumes it has merely landed and itself streaks down in a flurry of wings to accompany it.

As the hunter wades out to fetch the birds, the “dead” woodie realizes its mistake and flies off, cunningly putting a tree between itself and a load of steel pellets.

Little wonder sportsmen with a passion for wingshooting and a zest for targets that bring a wide range of gunning skills into play often compare the roller-coaster antics of wood ducks with the twisting flight of mourning doves.

Gunners who pick the right spots around the rim of a roost might harvest a limit of two wood ducks in five or 10 minutes. On the other hand, if they guess wrong, all they can do is stand in frustration and listen to the gunshots of those who played the right hunch in selecting shooting stations.

Either way, by the time the sun edges over the trees, most of the woodies have left the roost. The morning action is over — all too soon, especially for those who didn’t down a single bird.

Why, then, do duck hunters get up at 3:00 on icy winter mornings and after a two-hour car and boat ride, a foot trek by flashlight through knee-deep water and jumbled vegetation, shiver in the twilight chill waiting for birds that might or might not fly their way that particular day?

Inveterate swamp hunters have a ready answer. A handsome wood duck drake is the full package: a trophy game bird, a tricky target and terrific tablefare.

Back at the boat after the hunt, hot coffee in hand and, most rewarding, limits of woodies secured, we reflected on the morning activity, specifically the importance of being in the right place at the right time in order to achieve gunning success.

Sometimes being in the right place at the right time is a matter of luck. But with wood ducks, advance scouting of prospective hunting ground, perhaps more than pure luck, contributes to a successful trip. This had been one of those times.

The birds pitched into the roost well after legal shooting hour, we discovered on a scouting trip the previous afternoon. Barring a change from fair weather to stormy resulting in a premature dusk, tricking the ducks into roosting earlier than usual, they would more than likely do the same tomorrow.

But a favorable early roost couldn’t be anticipated because the weatherman had not predicted such a change. With this in mind, a decision was made that a dawn hunt might be more productive than an afternoon outing.

Accordingly, dry stands with shooting lanes between treetops in a dense grove of cypresses were preselected for the following morning.

The night passed swiftly. It was three quarters gone when we put the city lights behind us, skiff in tow.

Under a starry sky brushed clear by northerly winds, we launched from a public boat landing on the east side of the Atchafalaya Basin, motored inland along an oil company canal and tied the skiff to a sapling. Guided by flashlights, we waded a hundred yards into the swamp, now and then flushing a duck, and took positions on the humped bank of a slough defining the west boundary of the roost.

Roughly a half mile wide and a mile long, the roost is but one of many buttonwood, willow and cypress bottoms sequestered in the million-acre swamp. Some are within wildlife management areas (WMAs), with certain gunning restrictions; others are State Island, where regular shooting hours apply.

Inhospitable to most legged creatures, the bogs are preferred rest areas of the reclusive wood ducks. To their expressed discontent, tonight we were nearby, intruding their turf. In fits of chirping, they paddled off in the dark and were soon out of hearing.

Having birds in the immediate vicinity was great, but they weren’t the ones we were concerned with. We expected them to take off at first light beyond gun range. Our targets would be those woodies flying directly overhead from elsewhere in the roost. High-pitched squeals and wingbeats heard above the cypress tops assured we were in the right spot. Our hopes were high.

Meanwhile, frosty vapors rising from the stream directly below brought to mind steaming cups of coffee, unwelcome reminders since the Thermos of hot coffee, thoughtfully prepared in the home kitchen for just such as occasion in the backwoods, had been left in the boat.

By then, however, it was too late to fret over the mental lapse. The main flight had begun, initiating the pleasant event just recalled, a quest in which everything from pre-hunt reconnaissance to actual shooting went as planned.

Absence of mallards in significant numbers in overflow swamps for three seasons running kindled new interest in wood duck hunting, small bag and possession limits notwithstanding, because there were more of them than of the other kind.

Swamp waterfowlers are still shaking their heads in disbelief over that situation. They recall Novembers not too many years ago when flight after flight of mallards streamed into state bottomlands for the winter. The mass migrations were predictable, a day or two ahead of advancing Arctic blizzards colorfully called “blue northers.” Winds driving those weather systems reputedly were so cold they turned lips blue, thus the nickname.

Today it is glaringly evident that duck numbers in general have steadily declined in the last decade. Winters, too, have downgraded from harsh to moderate, even mild some years, in historically frigid northern landscapes leading to fewer lake and river freeze-ups.

Mallards, Louisiana favorites, are notorious frostline birds. They don’t migrate south from nesting grounds in Canada and U.S. border states any farther than is necessary to find open water. If grain fields happen to be in the region, the birds simply stay north.

In the state’s heritage swamps, where sizable tracts have been made available for public hunting, wood duck numbers can support the upswing in gunning pressure under existing guidelines.

The resident population of wood ducks statewide is estimated to be a quarter of a million — double that number when northern flights migrate in for the winter.

In addition to wetland flocks, hundreds of resident woodies make their homes in suburban lagoons throughout the state to the delight of community bird watchers.

“It’s difficult to get a more accurate count of the state’s resident population of wood ducks due to their secretive nature and preference for swampland habitat,” said LDWF Waterfowl Study Leader Robert Helm.

In effect, aerial surveys like those conducted annually by LDWF along with regional flyway observers to determine numbers of other species of waterfowl wintering in rice fields, coastal potholes and inland lakes are impractical. Again owing to their fondness for privacy, wood ducks tend to congregate in meaningful numbers in boggy thickets, where survey teams can’t walk and survey boats can’t maneuver. Plainly these swamp birds don’t even want to be seen, let alone counted.

Given those daunting conditions, the estimates of wildlife biologists who specialize in tallying waterfowl are close enough. Half a million woodies wintering in fabled swamps like Pearl River, Maurepas, Attakapas, Three Rivers, Red River and others are a welcome addition to the already bountiful list of game birds and animals available for public hunting.

Due to differences in terrain, not all WMAs are suitable for waterfowl hunting, and virtually all that are have usage decrees in place to accommodate sportsmen seeking game other than ducks.

Since each WMA has its own set of rules and procedures, it is vital that duck hunters consult the current hunting regulations booklet issued by LDWF. The publication lists dates, shooting hours and other conditions relative to waterfowling area by area, and may be secured free of charge at sporting goods outlets.

There are more than 60 areas. Some are department-owned, some are state-owned. Vast sections are national forests. Other parcels are generously offered for all types of outdoor activities including the gunning sports by private landowners, various corporation and institutions.

Hunting WMAs requires a special permit available where basic licenses are sold. Cost is $15.

Although wood ducks can get along in upland as well as lowland ranges, the geography of some management areas does not support them in large numbers. Immense coastal prairies, Pass-A-Loutre and Atchafalaya Delta, for example, are marsh-duck territories.

Despite lush oak cheniers, handy acorns, grass seeds and all the water a duck could want, marshes are not favored haunts of woodies. Marsh oaks are generally small and cavity-free, not compatible with their nesting habits.

On the other hand, cypress swamps and wood ducks go together like ham and eggs. Survivors of lumberjack saws at the turn of the century, grandfather cypresses with holes where limbs used to be are perfect shelters for nesting hens. Forage in the form of acorns, plants, duck weed and buttonwood pods, with one or more always in bloom in the fertile swamps, combine for wood duck Edens.

Adding to natural brood sites, gunning sportsmen and bird watchers have been installing nest boxes at quality locations all over the state for years, boosting overall production. For their part, LDWF men and women in the field maintain upwards of 3,000 wood duck nest boxes continually.

Contributing to the betterment of wood ducks is easy. Bagging some for the table is a different story. It can truly be said that the same problem arises when hunting woodies in the swamp as when trying to count them in a survey: getting to the awkward places they like to hang out.

It’s a wading game, shotgun in one hand and stout walking stick — for balancing in the gluey mud and probing ahead for stump holes — in the other hand. It isn’t smooth going, but the prize is worth the effort.

Aside from being somewhat hard to get to, wood ducks have a reputation of being blind-shy. For instance they don’t respond to traditional duck hunting methods the way mallards do. Sometimes strays plop into potholes set up for the bigger ducks, although it happens so unexpectedly the birds often are off again and out of range before the hunters can get them in their gunsights.

The nature of woodies is to get where they’re going by direct flight, rarely sidetracked by camouflaged shooting platforms, decoy arrangements and seductive whistles of reed calls regardless of how skillfully they’re executed. For those reasons, some hunters consider them hopelessly timid; consequently, they prefer pass shooting on the outer limits of roosts as opposed to the classic pond-and-decoy approach.

But this view of wood duck behavior is not shared by everyone. Other bottomland hunters contend that woodies can be lured to blind setups if the decoys are true-to-life images. Mallard, teal and pintail patterns, for instance, don’t work very well.

Also, if the weather is unsettled on hunt days, it is helpful. Rainy mornings can upset the feeding routine of wood ducks. Changes in water levels may cover familiar feeding grounds or expose new ones in other sections of the swamp.

The birds know all the spots. They fly around more than usual, checking out various areas. At such times, they might react positively to decoys they perceive to be others of their kind who’ve found a good feeding or gathering place, and pitch in to join them.

Even so, sportsmen who have opportunities to get outdoors only on weekends and holidays find a lot of discouraging ifs connected with hunting wood ducks exclusively, especially in light of the two a day bag limit. There’s also the issue of springing for a separate set of expensive decoys.

If the limit were ever raised to, say, three birds a day, which has been proposed by hunters and officially considered in the past, it could neutralize a few of the ifs.

While it’s uncertain what the future holds by way of changes in wood duck bag and possession limits, a healthy resident population remains a lasting bright spot on the waterfowl scene in the state. They have much going for them: helping hands of hunters and other caring citizens who provide nest boxes; flying skills that make them elusive targets; and the ability to thrive in places not considered ideal duck habitat.

Tree-shaded farm ponds, meandering creeks in hardwood forests, subdivision lakes — wherever there’s water, acorns and indigenous berries, there’s likely to be resident families of wood ducks. Large families, too. In good years, the hatch can be as high as a dozen chicks to the hen, and clutches of half that many are frequently observed.

To offset high mortality rates due to water and land predators, and thereby ensure there will always be workable populations of these unique game birds for the gunning sports and for aesthetic pleasures, Mother Nature, with divine foresight, programmed wood duck hens for double-digit offspring.