Sunday, October 19, 2008

Ducks in Flooded Timber

Flooded oak-willow forest, with dense beggarticks on the ground
I always talk about the first split being a "tune-up" hunt, and this year's opener was no different. Rolled out with fellow swamp-meister Mike for the opener of duck season in central Maryland. Mike had been hunting a wide open timber slough on public land for the last several years, and was convinced that the spot was "secret." Well, we parked on the access road around other trucks on the road - good sign! We slagged through the woods and got right up on the spot, only to see........4 head lamps. I had not scouted - trusted Mike, and Mike was trusting his own experience, which means that we had no Plan B. Mike was beside himself - his spot was nearly impossible to get to, without using our route, or trespassing on private property.

Mike was not happy that when we showed up at the "secret slough" at 4:40am, there were already 4 guys set up in the middle of it.

We waded away in the dark, and eventually found a nice hole with a suitable amount of open water, but (typical of flooded timber), pretty limited visibility of incoming birds. According to Mike, the "new spot," which we christened "Beggar Tick Holler," had significantly more bird food floating around than the "secret spot." Ducks were in and out of our hole in the dark, which was pretty reassuring. They were right on top of us.
Although it felt like shooting time would never arrive, it obviously did. Our "buddies" at the next hole began lighting up the sky. It became apparent that we had a problem on our hands. As soon as birds were visible, 70-80 yards in the air - locked up to drop right into the "secret hole" (and possibly drop into our hole, about 1/4 mile away), the 4 amigos would light them up, and maybe 1 bird would drop, and 5 or 6 would fly away. They fired 8 - 12 shots per volley, whether it was 1 duck, or 10 ducks in the air, and they killed very few. Throughout the morning, we had shot raining down on us. The 4 amigos were making shots well in excess of 100 yards, if birds started to circle high. Why wait for them to decoy or lock up? Just sky-bust them! I don't know what I expected for a saturday opening day, on public land. I should have been prepared.

When you're down in the hole. That's me.

We finally settled into a little groove, and got a few shots in. We had a wood duck fly by, about 70mph, about 7 feet off the ground. Pulled off 2 decent shots and brought him down. It was a little positive affirmation!

Decoy among the wild millet and beggarticks

Predictably, the wood ducks got sick of getting punished by around 8am, and we had scattered mallard pairs flying in after that. Apparently "Beggar Tick Holler" doesn't have enough room for them to land (especially under constant gunfire), so they went right to the open water of the "secret spot," where they were shot at 6 to 12 times, and still managed to fly away, generally unharmed. We waited around until about 10am, and called it a day. We'll be back there later this week, once the birds manage to cool off a little bit.

The wetlands - this timber slough was very interesting. There are several long, narrow crop fields that are parallel to one another. Inbetween are neglected, seasonally flooded, forested wetlands that are oddly, also parallel. This is not a natural landscape feature. Restoration ecologists (like me) refer to these sites as "made land." Poor farmers in the early 20th century realized that their fields were too wet, so using whatever equipment and horses they could mobilize, they stole topsoil from the wettest areas and piled it up on the highest areas, which then became "made arable lands." Or "made lands." The wetter, lower areas became even wetter and lower, and were essentially abandoned, other than for timber harvesting.

This is important because very few landscapes in the Mid-Atlantic have been "left alone" for the bulk of the 20th century. These wetlands are one of those few. They have very high value for wetland wildlife, particularly amphibians but also waterfowl, because the natural (but amplified) drying - flooding cycle produces a huge amount of food for critters. Once the flooding starts, the food is readily available to anything that can swim. The drying-flooding cycle is also important because fish are excluded from the habitat - very important for the production of amphibians, endangered invertebrates, etc. So the take home lesson is that even though this is not - in any way - a "native wetland," it is very important to wildlife, and it is very productive -perhaps more productive (in pounds of bugs, seed, etc) than it would have been naturally.

Not a bad place to spend a saturday morning in October.


Button-bush, a wood duck's favorite food


tugboatdude said...

Well glad you had a bit of luck and mother nature seems to have lended a helping hand.

Kirk Mantay said...

Yeah, I literally have never seen so many wood ducks (and we had no ducks at all, just 3 days before). Unfortunately, you could only see them moving left to right, from the 11:00 position to the 2:00 position, at 60mph.

Downeast Duck Hunter said...

Awesome post, enjoyed every world and the piece about human/environment interaction... Great Job!

Rabid Outdoorsman said...

NIce post. Glad to see that you managed to end with a few ducks. Don't even get me started about the sky busters . . . opening day for DEDH and I was filled with the filthy bastids! :)

Jon Roth said...

Swamp, very nice post! I enjoyed it very much. Your experience with the 'other fellows' sounded like ours on Saturday. Sunday was very different though, a really special hunt for us. I've added you to my blog roll. Great job!

Anonymous said...

What do you mean by "generally unharmed"? My dad was an old-school guy and he would have been sick about that kind of reckless shooting in his air space. For him and for the ducks. I never did take to hunting but I wish hunters with genuine ethics would call these idiots out. Not real hunting as I've known it in my lifetime.

Anonymous said...

I love it ! Very creative ! That's actually really cool Thanks.

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