I always enjoy seeing what is happening in the marsh. Whether it is while you’re picking up decoys or tromping back through the muck to the truck, you never know what you may see. If you spend a day in the field and look around, odds are you may notice an extensive buffet available for the migratory waterfowl that have recently surged in numbers due to frigid weather further north.
Sometimes this means looking past the mud to see the buffet. Prior to flooding the habitat this fall, staff disked and mowed openings in the moist soil vegetation. The purpose for this was multi-faceted. One reason was to be able to show water from an aerial perspective. If this isn’t done a fully flooded unit can appear bone dry from the air because of the rank plant growth covering up the water.
Another reason for disking is to give the bugs a jump start. Just like pureeing food for a baby, cutting up stems, mashing them in the dirt, and adding water aids in the digestion and decomposition of plant matter by the miniature population of bacteria and bugs. These small creatures in turn function as power packed snacks filled with vital nutrients and proteins for early migrants.
In nature, when one plant dies there is typically another species ready to take its place. Disking is a tool used to mimic these natural cycles. Fall disking can set the stage for annual plants to resurge in the spring by breaking ground and chopping up the root structure of longer lived, perennial plants. Sometimes, we don’t even have to wait until next spring to get a beneficial plant response. This fall the small, narrow, and light green leaves of common water starwort can be seen sprouting in the shallows. These tender shoots are thriving in the cool waters and functioning as a submerged salad bar for ducks. The evidence can be seen in the crops of the fowl, as well as in wind rows of roots and shredded leaves that mark the leftovers of foraging ducks.
These aren’t the only menu options available for hungry dabblers, globs of algae float within the water column and rafts of seeds cling to the water surface for easy pickings. Elsewhere small water beetles, which also prey on the plant shredding bugs, can be seen darting from one stem to another. Virtually, everything from the mud through the water column could be linked to contributing to a duck's meal plan as they pass through this fall. As you visit the duck’s diner this season, take a look at what has been prepared in the last year, and what is being served up on the menu that day. Whether it is to stock up after a big flight or just to help those bright new feathers to come in, waterfowl require a healthy diet of whole foods this time of year.