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Always in Season: Teal take off ahead of hunters

Duck season opened Saturday, Sept. 16, in North Dakota and Minnesota, although nonresidents will have to wait a week before they can hunt waterfowl in North Dakota. The delay gives North Dakotans the first shot, so to speak, and the best shot at bagging the state's most abundant duck, the blue-winged teal.

Blue-winged teal are short-timers on the northern Plains. They are late spring migrants and they leave early in the fall, often before hunting season gets underway. By late September, stragglers remain.

Nevertheless, blue-winged teal are regarded as excellent quarry among hunters. They are swift and evasive fliers, making challenging targets, and they are good eating. These desirable traits have caused challenges for waterfowl managers, because the teal are often gone before hunting season begins. Over the years, there's been pressure from hunters for earlier seasons.

Blue-winged teal are the long distance migrants among North Dakota's nesting ducks. Most of them winter south of the United States. Many other species go only as far as the U.S. Gulf Coast.

The blue-winged teal is a small duck that frequents shallow wetlands. Like most duck species, they are sexually dimorphic, a fancy way of saying that males and females have different plumage. Both have blue in the wings, however, although the blue patch in the wings of females is less strikingly bright. The blue wing patch cinches their identification of blue-winged—but only in flight. The blue is hidden on sitting ducks.

Swimming males can be identified by another, more obvious field mark, a white crescent ahead of the eyes and behind the bill. The head is otherwise dark, though it often shows an iridescent gloss of metallic blue or purple. Females are plainer, as females generally are among the ducks. Their small size helps identify them, and so does the scalloping along the breast and belly.

Life is tough for teal. These ducks are upland nesters, and many clutches are lost to predators, especially to mammals such as fox, skunks and mink. Within a day of hatching, the hen leads the young to water, where they are safer—though by no means completely out of danger. Once capable of flight, the birds begin migration. Then they face hunting pressure.

Greater threats than these confront the teal. Habitat loss is a problem, and drought reduces breeding success.

Blue-winged teal remain numerous nevertheless.

Although hens are faithful to nesting sites, they will move to find water. As a result, teal numbers can vary from season to season. Often, teal occur outside their usual nesting range.

Blue-winged teal nest from the southern Plains northward to central Alaska and across Canada to the Atlantic Coast, then south diagonally in west Texas and New Mexico. This takes in the entire northern Plains region and puts North Dakota's Prairie Pothole Region at the heart of the teal's nesting range.

A second teal species nests on the prairies, the green-winged teal. This is a similar bird, although the wing patch—or speculum—is a different color as the name suggests. Green-winged teal are more particular about nesting sites, preferring native prairie, and they are not as common in North Dakota as the blue-winged birds.

The teal are among about a dozen species of ducks that are regular nesters in North Dakota. Another half dozen are frequent nesters, and still another half dozen or so stop in the state during fall migration.

All of this makes North Dakota's pothole country a destination for waterfowl hunters — even if the teal sometimes are gone by opening day.

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