Fall migration brings these small ducks and their great flying stunts to our waterways.
We motored up the Missouri River from the Washington boat ramp with a bucket of green sunfish and four trotlines adorned with huge circle hooks. The other half of “we” was my wife, Joyce, and she was indulging me in yet another “date-night” on the Big Muddy, in search of flathead catfish. It was a hot September day about 15 years ago, and the last thing on my mind was duck hunting. I had only started chasing waterfowl a year earlier, and most of my hunts had featured spitting snow and northwest winds. As we rounded the tip of a trail dike, in search of a deep eddy hole for the first line, we came upon a large raft of blue-winged teal. I put the motor in reverse and eased away from the nervous puddle ducks. Later, I learned that early teal season would open the following Saturday so I set my sights on a late-summer hunt. My first teal opener turned out to be a bust, but that didn’t discourage me from hunting them for the rest of the season and many to follow.
Blue-winged teal (Anas discors), are typically the first waterfowl to arrive in Missouri during the fall migration. Their distribution is statewide and they can be found in ponds, marshes, lakes and large rivers. Flying in tight clusters that lack the formational structure of other species, blue-wings possess amazing aerodynamic prowess that allows them to turn on a dime, spring vertically from the water and even land with the wind at their tails if necessary. Those flight skills, combined with their diminutive size, make them a formidable challenge to duck hunters. Drake (male) blue-winged teal are brown with dark speckles on their breasts and sides. The drake’s head is slate colored with a bold white facial crescent. Breeding plumage includes a subtle streak of violet along each side of the head. The female is brown with dark scalloping and a dark streak through the eye. In flight, a powder-blue patch can be seen on the upper wings of either sex.
Blue-winged teal feed on submerged vegetation, insect larvae, crustaceans and seeds. I often see them dabbling along the fringe of the marsh in thick vegetation where they become nearly invisible. Blue-winged teal nest on the ground in vegetation near water’s edge and the eggs are incubated by the hen alone. After 24 days, the ducklings hatch and head to water immediately. If you are lucky, you might see a brood of teal swimming with their mama right here in Missouri as our state is part of their breeding range.
In case you’re wondering, I can’t remember how many flathead catfish we caught the next morning after that late-summer teal discovery. I was so excited about an early duck hunt I didn’t pay much attention to the task at hand. I’m sure if I were to check my records, I would find that we made an impressive haul. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it!
—Story and photo by Danny Brown
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