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ACE Basin Waterfowl Workshop at Nemours

The Nemours Wildlife Foundation is located at the corner of Highway 17 and the Combahee River. The Ashepoo River, Combahee River and Edisto River and their associated tidal marshlands are known as the ACE Basin and are a hub for waterfowl migration. The top scientific minds regarding waterfowl biology and those that are laboring on the land to prepare duck habitat came together on October 30 at Nemours to listen and to learn. Everything from Carolina Gold rice to Chiwapa millet is being planted to welcome this year’s waterfowl migration, and long term studies are underway to record their needs in winter and beyond.
Dr. Rick Kaminski is the head of the Kennedy Waterfowl and Wetlands Centers out of Clemson University. Kaminski’s office is on the coast at Hobcaw Barony above Georgetown because much of the Atlantic Flyway duck migration occurs along coastal habitats. The traditional duck hunting plantation game plan is to plant corn and other grains to provide for ducks, but Kaminski sees a bigger picture.
“Ducks need a mix of agricultural seeds and natural forage also,” said Kaminski. “Don’t go with all of one type or the other, since agricultural seeds decompose over time, and other natural food sources can be just as valuable. I think ducks would like to see a hemi-marsh where a combination of management practices are employed to open up access. Mowing in Fall or burning off blocks of your impoundment are proven methods to achieve the look of a hemi-marsh.”
“Clean corn fields are best for high yields but a field of corn that looks grassy is good for duck ponds because it adds more seeds,” said Kaminski. “Rice crops can be cut in September and then a secondary crop called a ratoon crop will grow to provide food and habitat for ducks. Remember that rice is a grass, and it doesn’t stop growing when you cut it. Chiwapa millet from Mississippi is becoming popular in S.C. for ducks since it produces a mature crop in October and has superior qualities like a stalk that stays standing upright even after flooding.”
Dr. Ernie Wiggers is the Director of Nemours Wildlife Foundation and he shared a report from the Southeastern Region Applied Waterfowl Research stating that a new focus on wood ducks is underway. “For almost all the Southeastern states the wood duck is pretty much our most abundant duck and our best chance at having a successful hunt,” said Wiggers. “We have a daily limit of three wood ducks per hunter, but we don’t have a lot of information about their sustainability.”
“The S.C. Department of Natural Resources provides wood duck boxes to private wetland owners but if the boxes aren’t maintained then they don’t continue to work,” said Wiggers. “Wood ducks are using natural cavities in hardwoods too, but it is very difficult to account for any of that activity. But in regards to nesting boxes, a new multi-year study is underway to study nest box selection by wood ducks and to track reproduction success. This study is funded the Kennedy Center, Nemours and others that understand the need for private money to study ducks since state budget’s can fluctuate over the course of 5-years or more.”
Gillie Croft just completed two years of looking at nesting boxes in two regions of the state, the Santee Delta and the ACE Basin. “In 1992 we estimate South Carolina had about 23,000 wood duck nest boxes deployed, but as of 2016 we had no current data on them,” said Croft. “We know that 46-percent of ducks harvested in South Carolina annually are wood ducks, making this work vitally important for first-time duck hunters and small private property owners. Wood duck nesting begins after hunting season, and box maintenance is the surest method towards sustaining and growing this natural resource into the future.”
Along the coast another duck that occasionally utilizes a nesting box are black-bellied whistling ducks, which are new to the Atlantic Flyway. These larger ducks are plentiful in other flyways that connect with the Gulf of Mexico, but they are spreading their habitat coverage now into South Carolina. Change is a constant in the realm of waterfowl migration and a downward trend in mallard ducks will likely result in a decreased bag limit for mallards beginning in 2019. The good news is that homegrown ducks like wood ducks, and migratory waterfowl new to the area, can combine to keep duck habitat managers busy planning ahead for years to come.
Jack Whetstone from Clemson talked about his experience controlling an invasive species called phragmites in the Santee Delta. He also mentioned that water hyacinth in the Ashepoo River is spreading and that SCDNR is monitoring it. Jamie Rader is a biologist with Ducks Unlimited and he explained how their grass roots supporters provide the dollars that go back into duck habitat like the recent improvements done at the ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge.
Almost all duck habitat, and any environmental oddities, can be noticed by aerial surveys that occur during the winter months to record the presence of waterfowl in the state. These surveys also count species like wood storks and pelicans, providing valuable information on the health of the ecosystem and the needs of winged wildlife. For instance, the mid-September survey found about 9,000 blue-winged teal using South Carolina wetlands.

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at LowcountryOutdoors.com

Jeff Dennis, Contributor (360 Posts)

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at www.LowcountryOutdoors.com