Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
We’ve all heard that old saying — ‘Big things come in small packages’. No one knows who first coined the phrase, but I can’t help but wonder if they weren’t referring to the blue-winged teal. A champion long distance traveler of the Mississippi Flyway; the diminutive blue-wing is indeed a mighty bird wrapped in a tiny package. My friend Jerry Anderson proved the point when he trapped and banded a group of teal at Winnebago County’s Rice Lake. Within weeks of their capture and release, three of those marked birds were recovered by hunters. The first report came in early September from Old Harbor, Jamaica. The next bird, also shot in early September, was bagged by a local doctor hunting along the shore of a tropical lagoon near Iztapa, Guatemala. The third teal was shot in the northern lake country of central Ontario. Apparently this bird had just decided to see what the countryside looked like hundreds of miles to the north, before turning around again and screaming for South America.
In addition to traveling fast and far, blue-winged teal also travel early. Regardless of balmy temperatures and summer-like weather, blue-wings are the very first ducks to depart the breeding grounds each fall. In Iowa, blue-wing migrations usually peak during the first half of September. Here Today — Gone Tomorrow; is the blue-wing’s official credo. But the species’ early, warm weather migrations are nothing new. A column posted in the Clear Lake Mirror Reporter newspaper in late August of 1896, reported that a local hunter named John Berkley had gotten his fall season off to a roaring start by shooting 73 of the tasty ducks. The columnist also noted that this was the best report received so far that year, adding that during the previous week “a great many hunters” had visited Clear Lake and that the fowlers had been fairly successful.
Although more than a century has passed since that newspaper column was published, the blue-winged teal still represents the perfect species to kick off the fall waterfowl seasons. An abundant inhabitant of shallow ponds and marshes, early season blue-wings are accessible to hunters of all ages. The weather is mild and there is no need for expensive blind boats or other specialized equipment. Instead, a pair of rubber hip boots and a bag of decoys are all you need. But although equipment needs are low key; excitement levels run high. Generally speaking, blue-winged teal are low level fliers that can’t resist buzzing a set of decoys; and they usually do so at warp speeds. Anyone who successfully bags one blue-wing for every five shots fired should consider themselves above average.