Bird Brains

Published on Wednesday, 29 January 2014 22:48 - Written by Steve Knight, Outdoor Writer

YARD — If you build it they will come.

That might work for baseball-playing ghosts, but it is no guarantee in the duck world.

Robert McFarlane grew up hunting the Trinity River bottom in Anderson County. Beginning in the 1990s the Palestine physician began buying land and putting together the BigWoods on the Trinity, a hunting ranch that over the years has grown to about 7,500 acres.

As part of his management program McFarlane has been building waterfowl habitat, everything from marshes to flooded timber, but despite all the manmade efforts it is still up to the whim of the ducks as to whether they show up or not.

“I have realized you can’t over-think this thing. It is like using a Harvard education to think like a duck,” said the graduate of the Ivy League school.

It would seem everything is set up just right. The ranch is located along the Trinity River, with duck-hunting hot spots like Richland-Chambers Reservoir to the west and Cedar Creek Lake upstream to the north. It is also in close proximity of the Richland and Gus Engeling state wildlife management areas. There are also other ranches and clubs in the area managing for ducks.

Despite having wells that can be used to fill some marshes, conditions at the ranch are at times still up to Mother Nature. Heavy rains in January 2013 put marshes as full as they had been in two years. After draining the water to reseed barnyard grass last summer, 10 inches of rain in October recharged the system for this winter.

And the ducks came. At least some of them. Early there were teal, widgeon, gadwall and wood ducks utilizing the wetlands.

A confident McFarlane was predicting the best timber hunting in three years. But on Sunday, the final day of the 2013-14 duck season, he was still waiting for waves of mallards to pour into the woods. They never came.

There were mallards on the ranch, but this year they were greatly outnumbered by flocks of pintails.

Pintail were once among the most abundant ducks in North America, but have been on the decline since 1950. This year’s flight count was an estimated 3.3 million, 17 percent below the long-term average of 5.5 million.

When it came to mallards this was one of those years even biologist couldn’t completely explain.

“Properties very close to Doc reported having a poor season, and just a few miles away Doc was having a very good season,” said Kevin Kraai, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s waterfowl program leader. “Crazy is the one word I would use for this season for that very reason. It was sporadic across most of the state. Some had great seasons, others not so much.”

Kraai said one issue was the increased amount of water available to the birds. Some of it is the increased number of manmade ponds and also the result of rains finally flooding ponds and bottoms.

Adding to the problem is that short-stopping has gone from a talking point to reality.

“Mallards remain strongly connected to the increasing food sources of Arkansas and Missouri (associated with corn and rice) and I suspect that is where most of them spent the winter. Despite the cold temps this winter, there were reports of good mallard concentrations in Kansas and Oklahoma, but in reality that is the case ever year,” Kraai said.

He explained it is hard for East Texas to compete when it only offers the food found in wetlands while in states to the north the ducks are able to find corn and other crops on nearby farmlands.

So there five of us sat on closing weekend. Tyler’s Alan Haynes and Francis Kay had come down for a morning’s hunt. My youngest son, Thomas, was the guide, and my oldest, Tristan, and I were along to see what mop up damage we could do.

McFarlane had confidence in the pond he sent us to. The day before it was covered in pintails. He even drained an adjacent pond to try to squeeze them on to ours. Between Friday and Saturday, however, the wind shifted from the north to the southwest, and despite below-freezing temperatures the ducks had apparently moved. Our eight birds, a combination of pintails, mallards and teal, was one of the better counts of the day.

McFarlane said his theory of starting the weekend hunts on the outside Saturday and squeezing into the inside on Sunday was flawed. What seems to be better is to just go where the ducks are.

This has been a weird weather year with extreme cold one moment followed by warm days the next. Sunday’s closing day was different from Saturday as night to day. For starters it was 20 degrees warmer and the wind had shifted to the northwest. It was also overcast ahead of a cold front bearing down on the state.

The hunting was equally diverse. In synch with legal shooting time Sunday the first duck flew over the blind. Within minutes the sky was full of ducks, pintails. They swirled like a tornado overhead, some landed further down the marsh, some fly on to other locations and some dipping into the decoys.

It turned out to be an odd morning. Not everyone hunting the ranch limited, even on just pintails, despite the birds in the air.

The oddness of the variety of ducks brought in was probably best explained by a blue-winged teal that was either way late to migrate south or extremely early coming back north.


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