Fly Away Home

Many are here, and others are coming. Hunters who are knowledgeable about how and why ducks migrate can use that information to increase their success.

The dawn broke early.

A week prior at this time, I was just crawling out of bed to go through the same routine that I had just endured for the last hour.But that trip was prior to the annual “falling back” event for the clocks, and this one was after.

So at precisely 5:41 a.m., I pulled away from Serigne’s marina with fingers of the sun’s rays curling around the southeastern horizon and accentuating fair-weather clouds sprinkled haphazardly in the new sky.

It was early, but it was a gorgeous morning. The gnats were inexplicably non-existent, and the winds were calmer than Ferris Bueller’s science teacher.

A Mercury outboard pushed my shallow-water flatboat over the slick waters of Bayou Gentilly, and I enjoyed that early morning buzz that only outdoorsmen know. The buzz is nature’s reward for those who commune with her. Body and mind should be asleep, and they know this, so they bombard their owner with heightened sensory impulses, almost like a dream state.

The air was crisp, the winds were calm, the ride was smooth, the sky was psychedelic, and I soaked in every moment of it.

Within minutes that seemed like seconds, my boat was in the Pencil Pipeline, heading south to the same area where I had caught limits of speckled trout the week prior — Bay Andrew. It was a route that I traveled often, and a destination that I knew well. The trout seem to stack up every year in Bay Andrew in late October, and although they’re far from large, they provide good action and the main ingredients for autumn fish fries.

The sun had not yet fully risen when I turned left into the big lake, but it was plenty bright enough to give me a view of a spectacular sight that made me yank back my throttle and stand on the deck of my boat, just looking.

Spooked by my intrusion, thousands of ducks were lifting off the surface of Bay Andrew, and climbing into the purple sky. Their wings flapped hard, and their necks stood erect as they sought to gain altitude. Like fans at a football game, they lifted in a rolling wave that eventually reached the other side of the bay.

Only 15 minutes into the fishing trip, and already my day had been made. The duck opener was less than two weeks away, and from the looks of things, it would be a good one.

I motored to the grass bed that I fish in Andrew, and the ducks, having grown somewhat more comfortable with my presence, filtered back in to the large bay. I watched them cup, and glide, and splash down with their friends, and listened to the welcoming quacks, whistles and peeps.

It was a special day because I had such a panorama of nature while I fished. But what amazed me most was the sheer number of ducks that had arrived in the area in such a short period of time. Only a week earlier, I had fished the same grass bed in the same bay, and had seen nothing more than a few mottled ducks. No major fronts arrived in the interim, and none loomed on the horizon.

Why did these ducks come down?

“There was likely a weather event up north that got the ducks moving,” said Bruce Batt, Ducks Unlimited’s chief waterfowl biologist. “The weather may not have made it all the way to you, but the ducks just didn’t stop until they got to their wintering grounds.”

That’s not uncommon with gadwall and wigeon, since both species are very intolerant of cold weather, Batt said.

Like all ducks, these early-migrators will use cold fronts as engines to aid their migrations, but they’re going to come whether the front precedes an arctic blast or simply a mild autumn blow.

That’s why there are always gadwall, widgeon and even green-winged teal in the coastal marshes in late October.

According to researchers, early migrants seem to fly mainly by the calendar, departing on approximately the same date each year, regardless of the power of the front they’re riding.

Late-migrators, on the other hand, are totally driven by weather. Many won’t migrate at all until conditions are so poor and food resources so limited in their chosen area that they have no choice.

As a general rule, diving ducks migrate later than dabblers because diving ducks can reach food resources that are inaccessible to dabblers.

But obviously there is variation among the different species of dabblers and divers. Blue-winged teal, for instance, migrate a whole lot earlier than, say, mallards.

“Each species has its own schedule. Some, like blue-winged teal, have already gone by,” Batt said in late September. “Big ducks are usually more resistant to cold, and they don’t push any farther than they have to.”

Bluewings are extremely intolerant of the cold, Batt said. The teal flocks that Louisianians see in September head to the balmy climates of Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean — especially Colombia, Cuba and Venezuela — for the winter months, and they don’t return to the breeding grounds until conditions on the prairies are quite moderate.

Most of the ducks Louisiana hunters see during the November-January season, however, can handle the chilly, but unfrozen, conditions of the Bayou State. Gadwall, wigeon and green-wings that show up in October join pintail that migrated two to four weeks earlier. Then, depending on weather conditions, scaup (dos gris), redheads, canvasbacks, ringnecks and mallards follow.

Even within each specific species, however, migration is seldom all-encompassing. For instance, a low-pressure system in late December may bring frigid conditions to Missouri and Arkansas, which pushes mallards to Louisiana. But with those flights of mallards may be numerous flights of lingering gadwall and wigeon. Also, many mallards may stay behind in the more-northern states, determined to wait out the cold weather.

Research has shown that in a year that doesn’t feature a grand passage, which is a massive flight of nearly all migratory birds in one or two nights, every low pressure system over a period of several weeks will move a fraction of birds to the South.

Fronts are the key to this movement because ducks use the north winds behind the fronts to drive their migration, Batt said.

“Up where they’re flying, the tail wind is usually about 40-50 m.p.h, and they’re flying at least that fast, so their ground speed is close to 100 m.p.h.,” he said. “They can easily cover 1,000 miles per night.”

The fact that ducks are riding the cold blasts down means they’ll actually be behind the fronts. Since cold air is heavy, it pushes underneath the warm air, forcing it upward. That’s what causes thunderstorms to build along a front. But it also means the cold air and northerly breezes arrive at a certain destination on the surface of the earth before they do at higher elevations.

That’s important for hunters to remember. Many duck veterans want to be in their blinds the day before a front is scheduled to go through, mistakenly thinking the ducks will be flying out ahead of the front to avoid the approaching cold. But actually, if they want to hunt “new” birds, they’d be better off waiting a day until the front has actually passed.

Ducks fly at very high altitudes during migration, and have been spotted as high as 20,000 feet. They migrate primarily at night, Batt said, because they use the stars to orient themselves. Problems arise when the sky clouds over at night. Also, bright city lights easily disorient migrating waterfowl, according to research conducted by Ducks Unlimited.

But the stars aren’t the only guides for migrating ducks. Biologists have identified small crystals of magnetic iron oxide in the bases of the birds’ bills that help the ducks respond to the earth’s magnetic fields. Basically, they have compasses built into their heads.

These migration mechanisms combine to give ducks a remarkable homing instinct. In fact, individual ducks return to the exact same breeding grounds year after year in the spring, and in the fall, they set out to overwinter in the exact same area that they overwintered the previous year.

“The migration queues get them to the general area, and then once they get close, they begin to recognize specific ponds, lakes, rivers, etc.,” Batt said.

Such a remarkable homing instinct has important implications for hunters, Batt said. Since ducks become so familiar with their overwintering areas, they know which ponds and lakes were safe for them last year, and which ones brought hails of shotgun fire.

“If they go into a pond and get shot, well then the game’s over. But if they go into a pond and simply get shot at, they’re less likely to ever go into that pond again for the rest of their lives,” Batt said.

Consequently, hunters would be wise to move their blinds each year. That’s particularly important in seasons like the one that begins this month because, with the unfavorable breeding conditions ducks encountered in the spring, there are fewer 6-month-old birds than there have been over the past several seasons. A higher percentage of the ducks coming down this year will know where a hunter’s blind is in their overwintering area.

This rule, of course, does not apply in seasons of extreme cold or parched dryness in more northern climes. Under these conditions, birds that overwintered north of Louisiana last year would be forced into unfamiliar overwintering areas in our state this year.

And that, really, is what Bayou State hunters need to hope for. There will be fewer young birds, we know that, so the only way we’re going to have an extremely productive season is if we get some birds down that haven’t in previous seasons had the pleasure of listening to one of our lyrical hail calls or viewing our meticulously placed decoy spreads.

Given the crazy weather we’ve had over the last several weeks, that’s certainly a possibility.

About Todd Masson 731 Articles
Todd Masson has covered outdoors in Louisiana for a quarter century, and is host of the Marsh Man Masson channel on YouTube.