Waterfowl identification in Texas key to avoiding citations

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Hunters must know without a doubt what variety of duck they’re pointing a shotgun at before they squeeze the trigger.

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Waterfowl hunters are birds of a different feather.

Rising long before the sun hints at making a rosy appearance to slog around in muck fit for a water buffalo while hauling around a gaggle of decoys in often less-than-stellar conditions may seem bird-brained to the average human. But for the average waterfowler, there’s no place they would rather be during the fall and winter than right in the thick of it, patiently scanning for bright plumage and cautiously listening for whistling wings.

I still have yet to meet a casual waterfowl hunter. Perhaps they exist somewhere, but beginning with the early teal season in September, the guys and gals you might happen upon in any form of duck blind think it’s downright daffy to not be in their favorite hunting spot when the birds are humming along.

And though the veteran duck hunter may be able to instinctively look at a small group of birds floating on the horizon and declare them to be wigeons or gadwalls without the slightest hesitation, properly identifying these birds can be tricky. Novice duck hunters may not be able to decipher right away what types of waterfowl are loafing toward them until they make a pass over the decoy spread.

Texas had been in the Hunter’s Choice program in past seasons when it came to waterfowl limits in the Central Flyway — a program intended to decrease the harvest of less-abundant species while keeping opportunities available for burgeoning ones. Under more liberal frameworks in place during more recent seasons, hunters are allowed to harvest six ducks a day in the aggregate. This limit includes no more than three scaup or wood ducks. Hunters also are limited to daily limits of two pintails, redheads and canvasbacks on their strap. Hunters also are limited to five mallards and five mergansers daily, to include no more than two hooded mergansers. The daily limit also is designed to include one “dusky” duck.

The early teal season that runs in September also features a six-duck bag limit in any combination of blue-winged, green-winged and cinnamon teal, though it should be noted that you can’t use lead shot for the smaller ducks, or any other waterfowl. This could be an issue if hunters are using their dove loads and want to do a combo trip.

It also should be noted that hunting for mottled ducks, Mexican ducks, black ducks and their hybrid offspring is restricted during the first days of the season in each zone, last year featuring a five-day window when they couldn’t be harvested.

For all other species, the daily bag limit matches the overall aggregate of six. Consult the state’s Waterfowl Digest for more information on bag and possession limits and hunting regulations.

The long and short of it is that hunters must know without a doubt what variety of duck they’re pointing a shotgun at before they squeeze the trigger. You don’t want to be the hunter who meets up with a state game warden, or worse – a federal one – with the wrong amount of ducks in your possession. The fines could be rather hefty.

With that in mind, here are some ways to distinguish one duck from another.

Plumage

The plumage of ducks is more brilliant in fall and winter than at other times of the year, which can work to the advantage of hunters. Birds that have shed dull feathers for brighter ones this time of year are easier to spot and correctly identify, and males typically boast more striking colorations than females.

Some ducks sport colored heads, which can ease the identification process greatly. Mallards also are known as greenheads, and they, along with redheads, are among the easiest waterfowl to classify based solely on their front features.

Size

Teal are the smallest ducks Texas hunters see. Though the early season is in September, there might still be some of these guys cruising around later on. Most ducks are similar in girth, but some species are slightly larger than others. For example, a canvasback drake and a redhead drake may have somewhat similar coloration, but a canvasback is larger, which could help distinguish them.

Flight patterns

Some ducks, such as mallards and pintails, fly in looser formations, while teal and others tend to fly in tighter bunches. Other ducks, such as wigeons, seem to be more nervous in flight than others, while mergansers tend to fly lower to the water than some of their counterparts. Gadwalls stay in compact flocks, flying swiftly and usually in a direct line with rapid wingbeats.

There’s no hard and fast rule to flock size, but with practice you’ll be able to pick out certain nuances that would give away what type of bird you are seeing.

Silhouette

Not all ducks are built the same, which again is an advantage. Pintails have a more pronounced set of tail feathers than a mallard does, while shovelers have a more pronounced bill than other ducks. The male wood duck features a striking green crested head that’s easy to spot. Practice is simply the best way to get good at correctly calling waterfowl based on shape.

Noise

Not all ducks simply quack. Canvasbacks and mergansers may make a croaking noise, while different species of teal and pintail offer up whistling peeps. The sounds of waterfowl wings in flight also have distinct rhythms. One example is the canvasback’s rapid, noisy flying as the fastest of ducks.

Waterfowl hunting is not always the easiest of pursuits, but the good days really are great and the slow days aren’t all that bad. More time in the field will bring better results when it comes to identifying ducks up close and far away. And there’s still plenty of time to brush up on your skills, which could mean the difference between staying legal and breaking wildlife laws, which no hunter hopes to have happen.

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