Duck!

A guide to waterfowl-watching

Wood duck

Fred Greenslade

“Louisiana is the most important state for waterfowl in the lower 48,” says Larry Reynolds, chief waterfowl biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in Baton Rouge. “We winter probably half of the ducks in the Mississippi Flyway and provide habitat for many more birds that migrate through our area.”

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Louisiana hunters usually bag about 18 percent of the entire national harvest. During the 2010-11 season, Louisiana sportsmen bagged about 2.7 million ducks, more than in the entire Atlantic or Central flyways combined.

“The 2010-11 season was definitely better than average,” Reynolds says. “In fact, it was one of the best on record. Our estimated duck harvest went from 1.85 million in the 2009-10 season to 2.7 million in the 2010-11 season. The number of birds we counted in winter surveys was double the average year. In the 2010-11 season, we had a good population of ducks coming off the breeding grounds and extreme drought up and down the flyway with colder-than-average winter temperatures. We had snow cover as far south as Arkansas several times during the season. That pushed birds farther south.”

Ironically, one environmental disaster actually helped the duck population. Several diversion projects along the Mississippi River release fresh water into brackish marshes. Normally, the state limits freshwater diversions to avoid affecting commercial fishing and oyster-harvesting. However, during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil disaster response, the state let the diversions flow wide open to keep petroleum from entering fragile marsh ecosystems. As least for the ducks, that massive influx of fresh water dramatically improved their habitat.

“The oil spill didn’t do much damage to the duck habitat,” says Paul Link, the LDWF North American Waterfowl Management Plan coordinator. “We saw a lot more gadwalls in southeastern Louisiana than we’ve seen in years. We saw huge areas of submerged aquatic vegetation, much more than we’ve seen in a long time, in many typically saltier areas.”

Gadwalls, blue-winged teal and green-winged teal generally comprise about 60 percent of the Louisiana duck harvest each year. Louisiana should welcome abundant birds again this fall, according to the USFWS. Good habitat conditions in the waterfowl breeding grounds produced an 11 percent increase in the duck population. In surveys during May 2011, the USFWS estimated 45.6 million ducks on the breeding grounds, the highest count since 1955 and about 35 percent above the long-term national average.

Among the ducks that normally winter in Louisiana, blue-winged teal, shovelers and redheads soared to record levels while the populations of mallards, pintails, canvasbacks and gadwalls also jumped substantially from 2010. Only wigeon and green-winged teal populations dropped, but green-wings remain 47 percent above the long-term average.

Since the breeding grounds survey occurs in the northern United States and Canada, biologists don’t include four species that remain in Louisiana all year long.

Non-migratory mottled ducks live in coastal marshes. Wood ducks, which are among the most striking waterfowl, stay in Louisiana swamps all year long. Once rare because extensive bottomland timber harvesting depleted prime habitat, woodies now number among the most regionally common ducks east of the Mississippi River.

In addition, populations of black-bellied and fulvous whistling ducks, both formerly called “tree ducks,” increased dramatically in Louisiana wetlands during recent years. With long necks and legs well-adapted to walking on land or perching on branches, both species stand upright and more resemble geese than other ducks. Both black-bellies and fulvous whistling ducks breed in the southern United States and migrate to Mexico or parts farther south in the fall.

“Over the last decade, they expanded farther north and will spend longer amounts of time in the United States before going south to Mexico,” says David Haukos, a USFWS migratory bird biologist in Lubbock, Texas. “They used to be rare north and east of Houston, but they are becoming much more common. Most southeastern states have some occurrences of whistling ducks.”

More Whistling Ducks
Whistling ducks expanded north and east from Texas to spread through much of southwestern and Central Louisiana up into southern Arkansas and parts of Mississippi. They mainly stay in soggy agricultural lands, rice fields, wet meadows, marshes and shallow freshwater ponds lined with small trees.

“Louisiana is getting more and more black-bellied whistling ducks all the time,” Reynolds says. “The population is growing, and the range is expanding. In Louisiana, they live all along the coast and up through the northeastern part of the state. They show up quite a bit at Sabine and Lacassine refuges. North and east of White Lake is another good area. We’re hearing about more whistling ducks in Terrebonne Parish and in the swamps around Lake Maurepas. Avoyelles Parish in the east-central part of the state also holds a lot of whistling ducks.”

With millions of birds pouring into the state wetlands each fall, duck-hunting contributes more than $1 billion to the Louisiana economy annually. Across Louisiana, the state administers more than 1 million acres of wildlife management areas, or WMAs, open to the public for hunting. In addition, national wildlife refuges, or NWRs, preserve another 500,000 acres of federal lands. Some public areas only allow hunting in specific areas on certain days but remain open all year long for bird-watching, hiking and other activities. In addition, numerous parks, conservation areas and other preserves prohibit hunting but allow people to watch and photograph wildlife and birds.

In Central Louisiana, Catahoula Lake near Pineville traditionally attracts several hundred thousand waterfowl. Each fall, the state floods a naturally low pasture to about 18 inches deep, expanding a tiny remnant lake to more than 35,000 acres of excellent duck habitat. Before the state floods the area, people can walk on the dry prairie or drive vehicles across the hard-packed lake bottom. In some years, the lake holds impressive concentrations of mallards, pintails, wigeons, gadwalls, teal, scaup and ring-necked ducks and flocks of snow, white-fronted, blue or Ross geese. It can also hold one of the largest concentrations of canvasbacks in the nation.

“Depending upon the water level, Catahoula Lake can be absolutely spectacular for waterfowl-watching,” Reynolds says. “By mid-October, Catahoula Lake normally has 100,000 ducks on it.”

In a state so blessed with water, many streams also offer excellent places to watch ducks. In northeastern Louisiana, D’Arbonne Bayou, a stream in the Louisiana Natural and Scenic Rivers System, flows into the Ouachita River. D’Arbonne NWR covers about 17,420 acres in Ouachita and Union parishes west of Monroe. It consists mostly of hardwood bottomlands, creeks, sloughs and oxbow lakes. High water coming from the Ouachita River can flood 87 percent of the refuge, creating outstanding waterfowl habitat. Some wildlife observers walk the paths or climb into the observation tower to spot birds swimming in nearby backwaters.

Also in northeastern Louisiana, bird-watchers might visit the Upper Ouachita NWR or Ouachita WMA. Upper Ouachita NWR covers 42,594 acres in Union and Ouachita parishes along the Ouachita River. The state-owned Ouachita WMA covers 10,989 acres of Ouachita Parish 6 miles southeast of Monroe. It borders the 16,835-acre Russell Sage WMA. These properties contain hardwood bottomlands and cypress swamp, plus some impoundments.

Because waterfowl often follow major rivers to navigate, wetlands along the Mississippi, Atchafalaya, Red, Pearl and Sabine river systems hold good duck populations. South of Venice in the Mississippi River Delta, the 115,000-acre Pass-A-Loutre WMA and the 48,800-acre Delta NWR hold some of the richest duck habitat in North America.

“The high river flows in both the Atchafalaya and Mississippi river deltas during 2011 was good for the habitat,” Reynolds says. “It deposited a lot of silt, built habitat and blew water hyacinths out of there. The Atchafalaya Delta WMA is loaded with ducks before and after the season.”

With more than 1 million acres of wilderness, the Atchafalaya River creates the largest swamp in North America. Sherburne WMA, Atchafalaya NWR and adjacent lands owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers combine to preserve about 43,618 acres of wilderness at the northern end of the Atchafalaya Basin near Krotz Springs. At the other end of the Atchafalaya Basin, the Atchafalaya River creates the “second delta” of the Mississippi and feeds the 137,000-acre Atchafalaya Delta WMA south of Morgan City. The Atchafalaya River actually flows to the Gulf of Mexico through two deltas, the old river channel and the man-made Wax Lake Outlet.

FRESH TO BRACKISH

On the Louisiana-Mississippi line near Slidell, the Pearl River system creates a lush fresh-to-brackish marshy delta that includes the 35,032-acre Pearl River WMA. North of U.S. 90, the cypress and tupelo swamps hold good numbers of wood ducks. Some old roads allow access to the upland forests at the northern end of the property.

West of Slidell, Big Branch Marsh NWR contains 17,095 acres of uplands, swamps and marshes on the northern shoreline of Lake Pontchartrain. Near Ponchatoula, the 16,394-acre Joyce WMA offers limited access, but bird-watchers strolling along a wooden swamp walk might spot some wood ducks. St. Tammany Wildlife Refuge extends about 10 miles along the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain near Fontainebleau State Park and contains 1,310 acres.

Inside the New Orleans city limits, Bayou Sauvage NWR covers 23,000 acres of fresh-to-brackish marshes between lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne. The largest urban wildlife refuge in the nation, Bayou Sauvage NWR contains a large wading bird rookery and attracts as many as 75,000 ducks each winter. Many people use the Ridge Trail boardwalk to look for waterfowl.

In southwestern Louisiana, the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road runs 180 miles through prime waterfowl habitat. Drivers often spot immense flocks of snow geese, perhaps numbering more than 50,000 birds, blanketing fields. About 25 miles southeast of Lake Charles, Cameron Prairie NWR covers 9,621 acres of freshwater marsh, coastal prairie and old rice fields. Many bird-watchers follow the Pintail Wildlife Drive hoping to spot green-winged teal, mallards, pintails, whistling ducks or geese.

Across Cameron Parish, Sabine NWR near Hackberry covers 124,511 acres of fresh-to-brackish marshes between Calcasieu and Sabine lakes. The refuge allows hunting on about 25 percent of the property at times. Off Louisiana Highway 27, a natural trail covers about 1.5 miles and includes an observation tower.

Hikers might also follow the Blue Goose Trail for about a mile through brackish marshes to Calcasieu Lake where bird-watchers can climb into a raised pavilion for better viewing.

About 11 miles southwest of Lake Arthur, Lacassine NWR covers about 34,878 acres. The refuge permits some hunting on limited areas, but most people know it as the home of Lacassine Pool, a 16,000-acre impoundment that produces trophy largemouth bass. Sportsmen may not hunt on Lacassine Pool, but people driving the roads along its edges might spot numerous birds. In some years, Lacassine NWR winters more than 400,000 ducks and thousands of geese, including one of the highest concentrations of pintails in the nation.

In Vermilion Parish, Rockefeller State Wildlife Refuge includes about 74,000 acres east of Oak Grove. This refuge does not permit hunting, but bird-watchers can explore several roads and trails. The refuge typically winters more than 200,000 ducks, geese and coots including a sizeable resident population of giant Canada geese.

The 60-day Louisiana duck season runs from mid-November through late January, but the best bird-watching occurs in February and March. After hunting season ends, bird-watchers might find themselves alone in the wetlands. In addition, birds in February and March sport their most colorful breeding plumage.

Bird-watchers don’t need to travel far from anywhere in the state to see their feathered friends. All across the Sportsman’s Paradise, many parks, ponds and other places also hold waterfowl populations. People just need to get out and look for them.

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