Mighty Migrants - Iowa Wildlife Federation

Mighty Migrants

Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.

Blue-winged Teal Steal the Show During Spring Migration

For Iowa wildlife enthusiasts, the spring waterfowl migration represents a major highlight of the annual outdoor calendar.  Bedecked in their finest nuptial plumage, the birds are never more beautiful than as they head north to ancestral nesting grounds.  No matter how many times you may observe the spring spectacular, each new migration is a bit different than the year before.  There is always something that seems to stand out.

Northbound blue-wings – Small but mighty, the blue-winged teal is a champion long distance migrator

This year’s standout was the unusually dramatic invasion of northbound blue-winged teal.  Blue-winged teal are among the world’s smallest waterfowl.  No fan of cool weather, the blue-wing is the first duck to head south in the fall, and the last to fly north in spring.  Whoever coined the phrase “big things come in small packages” must have been referring to teal.  Despite their diminutive size, blue-wings are champion long distance travelers.  Leg banding efforts have revealed that blue-wings hatched in southern and central Canada may spend the winter as far south as Central America, Brazil, Columbia, Chile, and beyond.

A flock of migrating blue-winged teal stop to rest on a North Iowa pond    

This year, an unwelcome combination of bitter north winds, a relentless cycle of freezing and thawing, and frequent late season snow squalls made the teal’s spring migration even later than usual.  The result was similar to damming a stream as teal stacked up to the south.  When the late April weather finally moderated, blue-wing flocks surged north, arriving in Iowa by the tens of thousands. 

This year’s migration was not limited to the usual Mississippi River backwaters or the extensive marshlands of northcentral or northwestern Iowa.  Instead, it quickly became a statewide phenomenon as newly arriving teal blanketed southern Iowa bass ponds, western Iowa stock tanks, and central Iowa’s pasture lowlands.  Everyone got to enjoy the show.  There were even reports of blue-wing flocks stopping to rest where road ditches had partially filled with runoff from recent rainfall.  While driving a blacktop south of Clear Lake, I even spotted a group of teal sitting in a front yard rain puddle within a few steps of the farmer’s front door.  There is no doubt that the tiny blue-winged teal was the star performer of this year’s spring migration.

Iowa wetlands provide critical refueling stops for migrating blue-wings as well as numerous other bird species

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