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Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge biologist Bill Gates walks through green corn stalks in the refuge. The corn was planted in July when adequate rain was falling and is still bearing.
Daily photos by Gary Cosby Jr.
Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge biologist Bill Gates walks through green corn stalks in the refuge. The corn was planted in July when adequate rain was falling and is still bearing.

Good eating for feathered friends
Ready for a fly-in
Record drought not hurting food plots for Wheeler Wildlife Refuge waterfowl

By Paul Huggins · 340-2395

It appears a mixture of good planning and good luck will mean this summer’s record drought won’t starve ducks and geese migrating to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.

“We have plenty of food to provide waterfowl,” said Bill Gates, refuge biologist.

That’s assuming, he said, that the corn plants produce at least 100 bushels per acre, as they appear they will when scanning the lush green fields of Thorson Arms. They’re a striking contrast to the browned, dried stalks of nearly every other cornfield across North Alabama.

“We’ve been lucky in getting rain here for the last month or so,” Gates said. “It’s been somewhat scattered, but it’s hit a lot of places where we have corn, so actually, it’s looking pretty good.

“And we do have extra acres of corn, so even if we don’t reach that 100 bushels per acre, we’ll still be OK,” he said.

That’s good news because the refuge could have an increase in visitors this year.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2007 waterfowl population survey estimates an increase in ducks and geese. For the second straight year, nesting counts in Canada and the northern United States showed a 14 percent increase in ducks from the previous year.

Northern shovelers, redheads and canvasbacks were the highest ever estimated. As for Canada geese, the report estimates the fall flight to be above average.

Improved grounds

Biologists cite improved breeding grounds for the increases. The number of nesting ponds for all ducks in Prairie Canada was the fourth highest on record.

An abundance of waterfowl, however, doesn’t mean Wheeler will see an increase.

As always, Wheeler’s population depends on weather north of here, Gates said. If the northern United States has a mild winter and ponds don’t freeze, many waterfowl will likely remain in the North, especially if food is plentiful.

Wheeler was established in 1938 to provide habitat for winter waterfowl. As part of the management for waterfowl, each year the refuge allows farmers to plant crops on some of its 34,500 acres in exchange for planting adequate portions strictly for waterfowl.

Bill Gates strips back an ear of corn, revealing healthy growth.
Bill Gates strips back an ear of corn, revealing healthy growth.
Gates said last year’s drought helped create the ideal situation for this year’s corn.

The 150 acres in Thorson Arms area typically is too wet to plant corn, but drought from 2006 and early 2007 meant farmers could plant there this summer.

That acreage is low-lying land that holds moisture, Gates said, and that’s one reason it looks green and most other fields are brown.

In addition, the corn there wasn’t planted until mid- to late June, so the plants benefited from normal rainfall in July before weather turned dry and hot in August.

Waterfowl depend on corn as a high-energy food to stay warm in winter. After the corn reaches maturity, the refuge knocks it down and lets rains this fall and winter cover the fields with 6 to 12 inches of water.

Besides corn, the refuge got lucky with a broken pump at the White Springs Dewatering Unit.

The faulty pump meant the area stayed wet this summer, and allowed natural food sources to flourish, he said.

And the reason the natural food sources flourished is that last year’s drought dried out White Springs. That allowed the refuge to till the soil and plant millet, he said, noting that breaking up the soil helps germinate annual plants.

“If you don’t disturb the ground every two or three years, the perennial plants take over,” Gates said. “And since perennials don’t need to produce as much seed to survive, they don’t produce as much food as annuals.”

Wheeler is the most populous home for ducks in Alabama, reaching a record 120,000 in 1996.

The highest Wheeler waterfowl counts for last year occurred in late December and early January. The refuge counted 41,531 ducks, 1,153 Canada geese and 2,201 snow geese.

The duck numbers were down 15,100 from 2005-06, while Canada geese were down by 200 and snow geese were up by 300.

October arrival

This year’s waterfowl will begin arriving in October. Bird watchers who want a closer look will find two primary sites at Wheeler.

The first is the observation building directly behind the Visitors Center on Alabama 67, west of Interstate 65. It offers windows and telescopes for viewing. The center also sells identification books to help distinguish species.

For wilder climates, try the White Springs Dewatering Unit in Limestone County. The entrance is immediately to the right on the northbound lanes after crossing the U.S. 31 causeway. Viewers can hike or bicycle to the water’s edge, but it has no viewing station.

The Visitors Center is open each winter from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., seven days a week.

Profile on mallard duck

  • The mallard is the most common duck on Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.

  • The male, with its green head and yellow bill, is easier to identify than the mostly brown female, which has an orange and black bill.

  • The mallard nests on the ground and the female lays seven to 10 eggs, which take almost a month to hatch.

  • It is known as a dabbler (as opposed to diver) in reference to how it eats. It tips forward in shallow water to feed on seeds, plants and aquatic insects.

    Paul Huggins

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