It’s hard to believe that August is slipping by and that summer is waning. Floodlights will soon illuminate our Friday nights, drawing gridiron fans like moths to a porch light, all for the purpose of creating a lifetime of memories.
Another season is also quickly approaching, and its first signs will be evidenced by blackbirds grouping together in synchronized clouds, gathering for their travels south.
The fall migrations are at hand and waterfowl hunters are beginning to ready decoys while Labs, Goldens and Chessies turn their noses to north winds.
Waterfowl make up some of the most notable populations that will flee south to escape winter’s frozen grasp. Hunters and birders will once again flock to swamps, fields and lakes to bear witness to these avian travelers.
What is it that draws us to this migration? Do we feel a wildness that only they can live? Is there a freedom that we admire, a sense of veneration of their independence? Could it be the mystery behind the birds themselves?
Except for Antarctica, waterfowl are found almost anywhere that there’s water: on the tundras, deserts, tropical islands and floating on ocean swells. To survive such a variety of habitats, it takes talent, skill and luck as gifted by nature.
Just how special are these birds? Consider just a few of these fowl facts about our continent’s migratory experts.
These travelers come in a variety of sizes. At 35 pounds, the largest North American waterfowl is the trumpeter swan, while the largest duck is the 6-pound common eider. On the other end of the scale, we find the petite green-winged teal weighing in at as little as 6 ounces. The smallest goose, the cackling goose, pushes the needle to just a little over 3 pounds.
Migration can also be a hazardous journey. While some think hunters are the worst threat, they’d be wrong. Hunters pay nearly all the bills for wetland preservation, construction, research and protection.
The real enemy is the diminishing habitat along their routes, called flyways.
Then there’s even the weather. In 1999, a tornado and violent hailstorm dropped more than 3,000 dead waterfowl across a seven-mile-long swath in Arkansas.
In 1973, hundreds of ducks fell from the sky, surprising everyone on Main Street in Stuttgart, Arkansas. Most of the birds were likely killed by hail, but others were covered with ice when they hit the ground, suggesting that uplifting winds had carried the birds to high altitude, where ice accumulated on them. Many buildings and cars paid the price.
There was also an incident on Christmas Day in 1947, when nearly 1,000 waterfowl were swept over Niagara Falls and plunged to their deaths. A strong current and dense fog likely contributed to this waterfowl disaster. So, who started that “lucky duck” cliché, anyway?
In 1949, Michigan Department of Conservation biologists caught and banded a black duck drake. They then caught the same bird during research studies 18 more times over a 9-year period. That means that this black duck dodged hunters, predators, migration hazards, injury and illness for 10 years, even getting a new leg band in 1958 because it had worn its first one nearly in two.
OK, now that’s a lucky duck.
Most waterfowl species speed along at 40 to 60 mph, with many averaging roughly 50 mph. With a 50 mph tailwind, migrating mallards could travel 800 miles in eight hours. Studies surmise that such a dog-tired duck would have to feed and rest for three to seven days following that trip.
The fastest duck ever recorded was a red-breasted merganser that attained a top airspeed of 100 mph while being pursued by an airplane. Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me.
Black brant gets first prize as the long-distance flying champion of the waterfowl world. They migrate nonstop from coastal Alaska to their wintering grounds in Baja, California. That flight transports them 3,000 miles in just 60 to 72 hours without a drop of jet fuel, though that trip costs them nearly half of their body weight. Not to be too far outclassed, Alaska-born pintails fly 2,000 miles to Hawaii for the winter. Good choices.
During migration, ducks usually cruise along at altitudes between 200 and 4,000 feet, but they do have the ability to climb higher.
In fact, a jet flying over Nevada hit a mallard at 21,000 feet, setting a record that no other pilot wants to beat. In 1954, climbers ascending none other than Mount Everest found a pintail skeleton at 16,400 feet. I wonder who was more shocked, the explorers finding the duck or the duck finding the mountain?
The oldest known duck to be taken by a hunter was a canvasback harvested at the ripe old age of 29, while the oldest goose was a Canada goose of the same age.
How was the age determined so exactly? The hunters turned in the research bands that had been placed on the birds to track populations.
A pintail banded in 1940 in Alberta, Canada, was shot in January 1954 near Macuspana, Mexico, roughly 3,000 miles away. If it migrated between these locations every year during its lifetime, that pintail traveled nearly 80,000 air miles.
A hen pintail fitted with a satellite transmitter began its migration from its Alaska home. Apparently, this duck either liked seafood, boat rides or both. It landed on a shrimp boat off the coast of Oregon, surprising the crew. They released the rested and fat bird in a nearby wetland.
Once, waterfowl actually triggered something of a human migration. Ducks and geese ingest small stones, sand and gravel, which are kept in their gizzard to assist in grinding up grains, nuts, clams and other hard foods. In 1911, hunters in western Nebraska were cleaning their kill and found gold nuggets in those gizzards. This triggered a short gold rush into the area, but nothing was found.
I’d bet that duck hunting became quite popular around there, too.
You can learn more about waterfowl facts and conservation by visiting www.ducks.org.
“It is warm behind the driftwood now, for the wind has gone with the geese. So would I — if I were the wind.” — Aldo Leopold
Along the way:
The Hancock County Fair will be here before you know it, and the flower show continues to change a little each year. The 2018 theme of the displays will be “The Good Old Days,” with six garden clubs vying for ribbons.
The Master Gardeners will again provide an educational display and be available to answer any of your gardening questions. Michelle Bishop, certified judge for the Ohio Association of Garden Clubs, will choose the winners in the competition. This is the first time an OAGC judge will judge at the Hancock County Fair.
Anyone with a green thumb may enter the competition in several categories. You don’t have to be a Hancock County resident, though you will need to purchase entry into the fair or present your fair pass.
If you want to show off your dandy dahlias, robust roses, marvelous marigolds or fabulous fairy garden, or get involved in one of the county’s garden clubs, this is the time. For entry details and rules, contact Mary Schwepe, Hancock Fair Flower Department chair, at email@example.com.
• Tomorrow: Sporting clays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., UCOA, 6943 Marion Township 243, Findlay.
• Wednesday: AR shoot, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., HCCL, 13748 Jackson Township 168, Findlay.
• Aug. 25 and 26: 3-D deer archery match, registration opens 8 a.m., Field and Stream Bowhunters, 11400 Allen Township 109, Findlay. Contact Harold Spence at 419-423-9861.
• Aug. 28: Free mourning dove hunting workshop, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area Headquarters, 19100 County Highway 115, Harpster. Preregistration is required by Aug. 27; contact Andrea Altman at 419-429-8321.
• Hunter and trapper education class information and registration is found online at www.wildohio.gov.
Abrams is a retired wildlife officer supervisor for the state Division of Wildlife in Findlay. He can be reached at P.O. Box 413, Mount Blanchard 45867-0413 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.