Hunters likely to have a great shot at wintering doves

Wintering birds are in abundance in feeding fields across the state
By Shannon Tompkins Updated 11:14 pm, Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The second session of Texas' two-part dove season opens Friday, offering wingshooters an opportunity to take some of the millions of mourning doves, many of them migrants from the upper Midwest, that winter in the state. Photo: Picasa

The second session of Texas’ two-part dove season opens Friday, offering wingshooters an opportunity to take some of the millions of mourning doves, many of them migrants from the upper Midwest, that winter in the state. Photo: Picasa
Photo: Picasa
The second session of Texas’ two-part dove season opens Friday, offering wingshooters an opportunity to take some of the millions of mourning doves, many of them migrants from the upper Midwest, that winter in the state.

Texas’ “winter” dove season opens Friday, and if history and anecdotal observations hold any weight, the late-season session has plenty of potential to produce excellent action for wingshooters willing to put in a little time scouting and adjust tactics to fit the wintering birds’ behavior.
“There are good concentrations of doves in the state, especially in places like South Texas that traditionally winter a lot of birds,” said Shaun Oldenburger, who heads dove programs for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s wildlife division. “But I’ve heard reports of surprising numbers of doves in areas where you might not expect to find them this time of year.”
That includes a report Oldenburger received this past week of “tons” of mourning doves in the Panhandle, a region of the state not known to hold appreciable numbers of wintering doves. Excellent concentrations of mourning doves also were reported in areas of central and north-central Texas, regions that, like the Panhandle, are dove hot spots during the September-October season but in most years are too far north to hold appreciable numbers of wintering doves that seek areas with mild temperatures and plenty of abundant forage.
The relatively mild autumn appears to have allowed doves to take their time moving south. Oldenburger said colleagues in states north of Texas – places such as Oklahoma, Kansas and Iowa – reported surprising numbers of mourning doves still dawdling there.
Season opens Friday
For whatever reasons – the relatively mild weather, good habitat conditions up the flyway – a fair number of mourning doves that, in normal years, would have migrated to wintering grounds in Texas apparently haven’t yet made it to the state, Oldenburger said.
Those birds will get here. Millions already have. Texas winters more mourning doves than any other state.
Some of those doves are part of the state’s resident flock that balloons to as many as 50 million birds when fledglings take wings at the end of nesting season – Texas’ nesting population of mourning doves is estimated to be more than 26 million, with another 6-10 million white-winged doves.
And while some of those resident birds move south to Mexico and Central America each autumn, millions of mourning doves raised in states such as North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas pour into Texas from October through December.
It’s those birds – full-bodied, red-legged, long-tailed adult mourning doves that are half again larger than the narrow-breasted, stub-tailed, pin-feathered hatch-year birds that comprise much of dove hunters’ bags during the early season – that drive Texas’ winter dove season.
Most of those birds traditionally winter in the southern third of the state, basically south of Interstate 10. And that’s where the best numbers are ahead of Friday’s season opener. Reports from South Texas, the traditional epicenter of Texas’ wintering dove population, indicate solid concentrations of mourning doves in the brush country and the coastal plain.
That abundance of wintering doves in the lower third of Texas is the reason that part of the state sees the longest winter dove season. The winter season, which opens statewide on Dec. 18, runs for 36 consecutive days (ending Jan. 22) in the 32 counties of Texas’ South Dove Zone and 32 days (ending Jan. 18) in the 27 counties of the state’s Special White-winged Dove Area.
The winter season is considerably shorter in Texas’ North and Central Dove Zones, ending Jan. 1 in those 200-plus counties. But that shorter season doesn’t mean wingshooters can’t have some outstanding days afield over the 18-day season. Last weekend, while driving a couple of hundred miles on rural roads on the coastal prairie along Texas’ middle coast, I saw dozens of concentrations of wintering mourning doves.
Most of those doves were stacked almost shoulder to shoulder on utility lines running along the edge of pastures or fallow grain fields or were flying in tight clusters. They were there for the food. And finding such areas is key to having a successful late-season shoot.
Pre-hunt scouting key
Unlike during the September season, when the best dove action is found over recently harvested grain fields to which doves flock to feed on waste grain, the best winter dove hunts are almost always over fields holding native seeds.
“Seeds from native plants, particularly croton and native sunflowers, are what most of the wintering doves are feeding on,” Oldenburger said, adding that early autumn rains across much of Texas resulted in a late-season flush of these and other important native plants.
Locating these feeding fields is crucial to hunting success, he said.
“If you find the right concentration, you can have outstanding dove hunting during the winter season,” he said.
That makes pre-hunt scouting even more important. Wintering doves are notorious for shifting their feeding fields, piling into a particular field for a few days, then moving to a different pasture.
Wintering doves also have other differences in behavior from early-season doves. They often make feeding flights in early and mid-afternoon instead of late afternoon. Hunters who arrive at the field a couple of hours before sunset can miss the afternoon feeding flight.
Wintering doves also tend to fly higher and faster and are much less forgiving of hunters who don’t make an effort to conceal themselves from approaching birds. Hunters can counter that increased wariness by taking cover and camouflage seriously and using spinning-wing dove decoys to focus approaching birds’ attention away from the hunter.
Also, many winter-season dove hunters find that tightening their shotgun’s choke by one level – going from an improved-cylinder to a modified choke – and using larger shot (No. 71/2 or 6 shot instead of 8s) improves their success.
And Texas’ dove hunters typically do have very good success during the winter season. Anecdotally, winter dove hunters typically bag more birds per hunt than those who hunt during the early season. Part of that success might have to do with the number of dove hunters afield during the two seasons. While more than 300,000 wingshooters go afield during the early dove seasons, only 30,000-50,000 participate in the winter season.
“I think the winter season probably brings out the really serious dove hunters, and they’re likely to be more experienced and skilled than those who just go once or twice around opening days in September,” Oldenburger said.
But, he added, the December/January dove season, which was created in 1972 to give Texas hunters a shot at wintering birds, is a fine chance to get new and young hunters afield. The season is set to coincide with the holiday season, when many students have winter breaks from school.
“The winter dove season is just a great opportunity for all dove hunters,” Oldenburger said.