The blue-winged teal is one of North America's smaller ducks. They're members of the puddle duck, or dabbler, family that includes mallards and several other species. Teal, in particular, love shallow water with lots of vegetation. Most of them nest in the vast area of prairie pothole wetlands that extends from northwest Iowa, across the Dakotas, and into Canada's prairie provinces. Last spring's excessive rain filled lots of shallow wetland basins and encouraged more than the usual number of teal pairs to stay and nest here.
Blue-winged teal hate cold weather. They're among the first ducks to migrate, and some have already arrived as far south as Texas. No doubt the recent full moon encouraged some to begin their journey. Many are still up north since there hasn't been a real outbreak of fall cold to drive them along. Iowa sets a special early teal-only season in September to allow duck hunters a chance at these tender and tasty birds that are often well south of us by the time regular season opens in October. Teal season will close on the Sept. 16, and, sadly for Iowa hunters, if not the teal, few of them have migrated through Iowa as I write on Sept. 14. Fair numbers have moved through eastern Nebraska, though. Perhaps the “duck telegraph” sent word up north that last spring's terrible flooding in that area left some ideal habitat for migration. I don't know how it works, but ducks seem to know where favorable conditions will be even before they leave their breeding areas.
I headed to a favorite pond early this morning to see if I might be lucky enough to harvest a teal or two. I hoped that maybe a few locally produced birds might be around. It's a bit of a walk into the pond, and the decoy bag seemed heavier than it used to even though my load was relatively light. Thankfully, I didn't need much gear along. The few decoys were all brown hens. Puddle ducks are still in what's called eclipse plumage. The drakes and young all look pretty much like the hens. Drakes lost their gorgeous breeding plumage early in the summer, and are just beginning to molt back to that colorful condition. They won't reach their full color until later in October. They'll begin competing for next spring's mates soon after that.
Two deer stepped into the path ahead of me as I walked in the dawn light. They snorted indignantly at being disturbed and stomped off. I could hear geese talking long before reaching the pond and soon could hear mallards quacking and chattering softly. I stopped behind some willows next to the water to watch and listen and could then hear wood ducks softly whistling to each other not far away. It was a very peaceful scene with geese and ducks scattered all over the pond. I knew I'd be disturbing the peace as soon as I began to wade to a favorite
island hiding place. I gripped the sturdy wood wading stick I use to keep my balance because the bottom was uneven and covered with deep, soft mud. The woodies were closest and flushed first. That spooked some of the geese and mallards, but I was surprised that some stayed put, reluctant to leave their quiet pond in spite of my intrusion. A flock of teal was still on the water just beyond the island where I was headed. I wasn't too worried when they flushed, too. The birds obviously liked it there because there were duck feathers all over the water. There was virtually no wind, and that's a problem for a duck hunter. Ducks like to land into the wind, and that helps the hunter know which direction they'll come from in their final approach. As it was, small groups of mallards that soon began returning were landing in every direction.
I sat for more than an hour watching the mallards and geese come and go. The sun rose gloriously red as a still nearly full moon dropped behind approaching clouds in the west. A song sparrow perched briefly in a willow just behind my head. I was surprised, as usual, when two teal zoomed in from behind and plopped down next to the decoys. It appeared to be an easy shot, but both birds flew away. It was a full minute later that I noticed a dead willow blown in half just ahead of where my gun barrel had been. I was so focused on the ducks that I hadn't noticed the tree.
It was soon time to go, but the morning had one more treat in store. Just as I came ashore after my long, slow wade, I glanced down at some tiny bright yellow flowers I'd never seen before. They were dime sized and hardly two inches high. Sylvan Runkel's Wetland Plants of Iowa showed it to be water stargrass. No ducks in the bag, but truly a gold star morning!