Catch a glimpse of blue-winged teal when they pass through
September tends to mark the end of summer, and our thoughts drift toward cooler weather activities such as fall gardening, football and hunting.
In the world of birds, fall marks the time for many to begin their migration. Most species of birds migrate to some extent, but as renowned waterfowl biologist Frank Bellrose said, “Waterfowl are highly visible in migration; they epitomize this phenomenon for most people.”
Mississippi is the last stop for many waterfowl species along their fall migration, so we often don’t think about ducks arriving until late October or November. However, blue-winged teal are quite different from most other duck species in terms of migration, generally showing up in mid-September.
Blue-winged teal leave their prairie breeding grounds almost immediately after they have completed the wing molt in August. States like Mississippi are just a pit stop along the way for most of these birds, as they still have quite a journey ahead of them. Most blue-wings will winter in marshes along the Gulf Coast, and even as far south as Central and South America. This means most bird-watchers and waterfowl hunters in Southern states have little opportunity to view or hunt this species when most waterfowl are present.
Many Southern states have a short hunting season during September that allows waterfowl hunters to pursue these birds while they are passing through. Bird-watchers can also get out and search wetlands for opportunities to view these small, fast-flying ducks.
September through early October is when most blue-wings are passing through Mississippi. However, peak migration during this time window varies from year to year. Cool fronts, tropical storms or other weather events can greatly influence when birds arrive and the duration of their stay before moving on.
Teal are the smallest of all dabbling ducks, so they require very shallow water for feeding along the bottom for seeds and invertebrates. Look for them in shallow-water wetlands. However, since early fall is typically the driest time of year in Mississippi, there is often a shortage of available water for teal, so wherever flooded habitat can be found, you will likely encounter these birds.
Often, teal will seek shallow, early-flooded wetlands specifically managed for waterfowl. When these shallow wetlands are scarce, teal will also use deeper permanent and semi-permanent waters (e.g., sloughs, oxbow lakes, ponds, and reservoirs) to forage on floating and emergent plants.
Typically, by late October when the first of other duck species begin to arrive, most blue-wings have moved south to their final wintering grounds. But this doesn’t mean that blue-wings are not present in Mississippi during the winter months. While not as abundant as during migration, some blue-wings will remain here throughout the winter. Waterfowl migration is not fully understood. Migration strategies vary within and among waterfowl species, and blue-wings are no exception.
Once winter has ended, waterfowl will begin to prepare for spring migration to their Northern breeding grounds. Many blue-wings will once again travel through Mississippi on their return trip, typically during April and May. They will look a little different on this trip—the drakes will have molted into their bright, colorful breeding plumage.
Spring is an excellent time to watch or photograph these beautiful birds. As in their fall migration, shallow-water wetlands are extremely important during spring. With breeding season on the horizon, resources like aquatic invertebrates in these shallow wetlands are important sources of protein for subsequent egg production. This is one of the many reasons waterfowl habitat managers should hold water in some areas into the spring and early summer.
Hopefully, teal and other ducks passing through our state will find abundant food resources to sustain them on their long journey and set them up for success when they reach their breeding grounds.
Editor’s Note: Extension Outdoors is a column authored by several different experts in the Mississippi State University Extension Service.