Michael Pearce

The Eagle's outdoor reporter highlights the latest hunting, fishing and wildlife news.

Brutal summer weather clears out just in time for waterfowl season

09/09/2012 12:00 AM

09/09/2012 8:07 AM

We didn’t even need daylight to know things were looking good.

During rare lulls in our pre-daylight conversations we heard the tell-tale whoosh of fast, tiny wings cutting through air as squadrons of blue-winged teal passed overhead.

With eyes several f-stops better than ours, the swiveling head of a nearby Labrador retriever telegraphed he was seeing others even further away.

And Bob Snyder, Andy Fanter and I had seen conditions change enough in about the past two weeks to expect great things from Saturday’s opening of teal season.

Before then the area around the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge had been locked in probably the worst drought we’d seen in our lives.

For months the drought and insane heat made the prospects for a good waterfowl season seem as ugly as the clouds of salt that blew over the parched, alkali soil.

But around the last weekend of August the rains not only came, but they fell in the right areas and kept coming. With that moisture came the first flocks of teal and other migrants.

And those good things turned great with last week’s serious cold front.

By Thursday evening, central Kansas birders were reporting big increases in things like warblers, vireos and several species of sparrows. Travelers reported teal on about every patch of sheet water between Hutchinson and Stafford.

Friday afternoon, Snyder called to say he’d probably seen more blue-winged teal around his hunting area than during any September in his 50-plus seasons of waterfowling and that’s saying something for a guy raised amid Quivira when it was in private hands.

With calm skies and scores of shallow water spots around, teal numbers at our pond weren’t as high had conditions been otherwise early Saturday.

The wetland’s habitat was also too good, if that’s possible. Acres of prime, food-rich flooded grasses offered passing teal nearly endless places to feed and made our decoys difficult to see.

Worse, we three veteran hunters often performed like as many rookies.

Some bags of decoys and ammo were left at home, and I got reminded the cold, wet way that I was in hip-boots and not chest waders when I bent low over the water.

A decent Little Leaguer with a bucket of baseballs may have done better hitting teal than I did with my first fistful of 12 gauge shells.

But, thankfully, there was plenty of action.

The first half-dozen or so flocks looped in and out of sight as they flew above and below the horizon. Many didn’t circle the wetlands; instead they just splashed into the first wet and weedy spot they saw to replace calories burned during their recent migrations.

Mostly we had pass-shooting at the little ducks with flight patterns almost as erratic as bumble bees.

And in between the teal came flocks of pintails, mallards and long strings of honking Canada geese.

Several flocks of ibis, pulling long, straight legs and pushing long, curved beaks worked the pond often. Assorted shorebirds had us doing double-takes as they barely cleared greenery. In the distance, I saw a first of fall flock of blackbirds flying in crack-the-whip formation.

Full daylight brought better shooting success, while the weeds and grasses spurred by recent rains seemed to swallow downed birds that took hunter and hunting dog diligence to find.

Several sizable bunches of bluewings buzzed our blind after I’d used three shells to drop our 12th, and limit-filling teal of the day, which the same Little Leaguer probably could have hit with a ball bat.

As much about the day, as we gathered gear we reflected how conditions that had seemed impossible a few weeks ago had become a better than dreamed thanks to the two gifts from Mother Nature.

Somehow the fall following one of Kansas’ driest summers in history now appears to hold plenty of promise.

I’m sure we won’t take it for granted.

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