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Arkansas dinner table set for early migrating ducks

BY Randy Zellers

ON 09-19-2018


Sept. 19, 2018

Randy Zellers

Assistant Chief of Communications

JONESBORO – Blue-winged teal and other early migrants are beginning their annual trek south, and nearly all of the moist-soil units managed to produce food on Arkansas public land are in excellent condition to welcome them. A recent report showed outstanding crops of native vegetation as well as excellent stands of millet cover crops in units where moist-soil plants were slow to develop or knocked back to encourage better growth next year. 

Shirey Bay Rainey Brake and Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Areas in northeast Arkansas both showed impressive results in their moist-soil habitat this year, despite some nail-biting moments caused by flash floods in late August. 

Zach Yancey, biologist at Dave Donaldson Black River WMA, says a cover crop of millet was planted in the Brookings Moist Soil Unit this year to augment native vegetation that had to be set back to remove some less desirable plants.

“It’s been so wet through the summer the last few years that we couldn’t do as much disturbance as we wanted,” Yancey said. “Perennial plants began to take hold, which do not produce the high-value seeds we want. As part of our plan, we disked those plants to bring back annuals next year, and planted a cover crop of millet, just as we would on sites that don’t respond to moist-soil management techniques through the year.”

The crop was nearly lost when 10 inches of rain fell within two days, completely flooding the young stand at a critical time.

“We had both staff members on Dave Donaldson WMA and two others from nearby areas to gather up four pumps from the region and get them going,” Yancey said. “We manned those pumps over the weekend and halfway through the next week before we got the water off to save those fields. It’s as good a stand of Japanese millet as you could hope for right now, and we’re starting to put water on it for early ducks.”

Millet can be a good stopgap, but Yancey is a strong proponent of native vegetation over planted crops when possible. 

“A good, natural moist-soil plant response is more beneficial to the ducks,” Yancey said. “It gives an excellent food source and these waterfowl rest areas provide a true resting area for ducks to go without being disturbed.” 

Jessica Homan, wildlife biologist in Jonesboro says moist soil units at Shirey Bay also are producing well, thanks to properly timed manipulations planned throughout the year. 

“We follow a set procedure that involves pulling water off at the right time, flooding at the right time and manipulating the plants if needed to produce the best response from seed-heavy annual species,” Homan said. “We assess it throughout the year and if it’s not producing up to standard, we may come back with a cover crop to get the food value of the unit up, but we want native plants as much as possible.”

Homan says native plants not only produce an excellent food resource, but they also are much more resistant to parasites and flooding, which makes them a great fit for the low-lying areas prevalent on AGFC WMAs.

“When we plant millet, we really have to watch for Army worms on a daily basis,” Homan said. “We even had to aerially spray a stand this year to let the millet grow out of its vulnerable stage. You don’t have to worry about that with smartweeds, panic grasses and other native wetland plants.”   

Homan also says the seeds from native vegetation remain long after agricultural waste like soybeans have germinated or rotted once fields are flooded.

“Native vegetation has adapted to live in these flooded areas much better than agricultural crops, which need constant tending,” Homan said. “You have to remember that ducks have been coming to Arkansas long before men brought rice fields to the Delta. Native wetlands and bottomland hardwoods were what ducks came here for to begin with.”

Buck Jackson, wetland program biologist for the AGFC, plans the timing of the many manipulations needed to promote moist-soil units and works with area biologists to fine tune the process and adapt to changing conditions each year. He says moist-soil units are becoming increasingly important as the landscape of Arkansas’s wetlands change, particularly in respect to the availability of food in our flooded hardwood areas.

“We know that food from flooded red oaks is diminishing in many of our greentree reservoirs, and we are working to address that issue through changes in our management and infrastructure of these areas,” Jackson said. “We also know modern agricultural practices do not produce the waste grain they once did, due to early harvests and fall tillage. The waterfowl need a lot of energy as they migrate, and moist-soil units can combat some of the food shortages we are seeing in other habitat types.”

The amount of food energy moist soil units produce, when compared to agricultural crops, is impressive. Agricultural fields are harvested, leaving only waste grains to attract and supply food for waterfowl, but native vegetation can be manipulated to expose all the grain produced for ducks and other migrants.  

Current research suggests a harvested rice field produces about 138 duck energy days per acre (a measurement denoting how much food energy is available for average-sized dabbling ducks). Harvested corn produces 505 duck energy days per acre. Baseline moist-soil units provide 1,868 duck energy days per acre by comparison. But those numbers don’t even come close to units managed by the AGFC.

“Those estimates are based on native stands with hardly any manipulation,” Jackson said. “They average about 600 pounds of seeds per acre. “We manage our units with lime, fertilizer and proper water manipulation to produce closer to 3,500 pounds of seeds per acre, so we’re producing along the lines of 2,500 to 3,000 duck energy days per acre on our areas.”

Jackson says moist-soil management isn’t just about seed energy, but offering waterfowl the variety of foods they need in their diet. 

“Agricultural crops will always attract some ducks, just like a person isn’t likely to turn down a free candy bar,” Jackson said. “But the birds also spend a lot of time gathering other types of foods, including acorns for fat reserves, invertebrates for protein and many varieties of seeds for a balanced diet. A variety of food sources is essential to a thriving duck population.”

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