If you are like most hunters hunting an impoundment with flooded corn, chufa or millet is just a dream. Therefore finding ducks requires hours of scouting if ducks are to be harvested on a consistent basis. Understanding the nature of ducks and the habits of ducks will help in this process. Food is one of the main driving factors that determine where ducks will be during the fall and so knowing what ducks eat is many times the key to locating them. Smartweed, duckweed, water shield, pondweed and bulrushes are some of the main food sources for a multitude of waterfowl so knowing what each species looks like and where they are found is important. This article will focus on bulrushes which make up a significant portion of the diet for widgeon, black duck, canvasback, gadwall, mallard, pintail, redhead, ruddy duck, scaup, shoveller, teal and geese. They are one of the most common and widest spread wetland plants and not only provide food for waterfowl but also valuable nesting habitat.
There are over 40 different species of bulrushes across the United States and about a dozen or so that live here in South Carolina. Only 3 or 4 of those 40 species are heavily used by waterfowl as a food source. These include saltmarsh bulrush, three-square bulrush and soft stem bulrush. Although they are found in every county in the state there are certain places in which each species thrives. Each has a particular set of environmental conditions in which it grows best and therefore each is found in a different habitat. The one thing that these bulrushes have in common is their importance not just waterfowl but also many other wetland species such as songbirds, muskrats, fish and other shore birds. Although there are slight variances in each species, they all have long slender stalks with narrow v-shaped leaves. The stalks may be round or triangular and they range in size from less than a foot to 7 feet in height.
Saltmarsh bulrush (Scirpus robustus) is probably the most common of all the bulrushes found in South Carolina. It ranges in size from 1 ½ to 5 feet tall and has 1 to 5 small brown seeds per cluster that grow on the stalk. It typically has many slender leaves growing at the base of the plant and the stalks will protrude from among the leaves. It prefers to grow on soil which is saturated but not covered with water and is found in salty brackish waters along the coast or other tidal creeks. Considered to be an early successional plant, it has the ability to dominate large areas along the coast. If fire or some other type of disturbance is not used to keep other plants such as cordgrasses under control bulrush will eventually be out competed.
Three-square bulrush (Scirpus pungens) is another common species but it inhabits both fresh water and brackish water. It grows well in slightly brackish water (3,000-7,000 ppm) but will tolerate a salt level up to 22,000 ppm. A height of 4 feet is common and it generally has very few leaves around the stalks. Unlike saltmarsh bulrush the three-square bulrush prefers to grow in water that is 3 to 6 inches in depth. The stalk will have 5 to 12 seeds per cluster which also distinguishes it from saltmarsh bulrush. Fire or other disturbance again is a critical component in keeping other later successional plants from taking over.
Last on the list is soft stem bulrush (Scirpus validus). This species is probably the most widespread and common species in North America. It can be found from coast to coast and from Alaska to Mexico. Like three-square bulrush it does not have any leaves and can grow anywhere from 1 ½ to 9 feet tall. The stems are spongy and the seeds grow on the ends of the stalks in branched clusters. This characteristic makes the soft stem easily distinguishable from the three-square when seeds are present. It grows in both fresh and brackish water and typically grows better in fresh water environments. Generally soils that are not saturated during the summer months provide the best habitat for soft stem. Unlike both saltmarsh and three-square bulrush, soft stem is a more dominant plant. It typically grows in large quantities and will out compete most other plants but it can be replaced by cattails in continuously flooded areas.
Bulrushes are important not just for ducks but for many forms of wildlife. If you have a pond or shallow swamp that has bulrushes try to manage the water levels to promote their growth. Run a fire through them every couple of years to encourage new growth. Also while you’re fishing this spring on the lakes look around for bulrushes. Not only will you already have a good idea of where to look to find ducks in the fall but you just may catch a fish in them as well.
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