Duck-Land Paradise

Texas landowner restores a square-mile of coastal prairie to wetlands and grasses.

During the course of 10 years, Frank Gore has turned 627 Texas acres into a hunting and wildlife habitat hot spot, Image by Karl Wolfshohl

Frank Gore remembers as a child sleeping on the floor of a duck blind at daybreak as his father and grandfather called over decoys to distant birds. Now a third-generation duck hunter, Gore has a grandson of his own, and he’s doing what he can to make similar memories for him.

“I want my grandkids to know what a covey of quail sounds like in the morning,” he says. “And, I want them to see 300 ducks get up off a pond, then wheel around and come back. That’s why we did all this.”

“All this” started with nearly a square-mile of a former rice farm Gore purchased in 2007 in Jackson County, Texas. It’s on the coastal prairie, 25 miles by blacktop from the Gulf of Mexico. After the rice, cows pastured on Coastal bermudagrass for eight years prior to Gore purchasing the land.

Besides its location near the Gulf, the land had other bird-friendly assets. Nearly 400 acres could be easily flooded. Around that wasanother 250 upland acres that, when planted anew to prairie grasses, would create excellent quail and songbird habitat, and nesting areas for mottled ducks. There was also a small remnant population of bobwhite quail that would provide seed stock for more coveys when their living quarters improved.

Heaven Again. Now, a decade later, efforts by Gore, his son and lots of volunteers, guided and sometimes cost-shared by several government agencies and wildlife conservation groups, have turned 627 acres into a year-round wildlife haven. Gore recently retired as owner and CEO of an industrial control business. He sold the farm and company to his son, Josh. Today, Gore spends time speaking with landowner and wildlife groups, and having schoolkids and others out to see his project.

“You don’t have to be crazy to get into this kind of stuff, but it sure helps,” he laughs. “When I speak to landowner seminars, I tell them there is no book on ‘the right way,’ and there really isn’t.”

Each fall, Gore and family flood 350 to 400 acres to attract and feed waterfowl. It took a great deal of work to get there.

When he first bought the farm, Gore had Ducks Unlimited design several prairie wetlands projects for it. He had about 150,000 cubic yards of dirt moved to create levees for flooding individual fields into ponds. He also drilled a second 12-inch irrigation well to augment the existing 14-inch one for faster and more efficient flooding. The ponds average 30 to 60 acres each and, thanks to being leveled for rice in the past, can be flooded to a consistent 18 to 24 inches deep.

“There’s no neck-deep water anywhere on the place,” Gore says. “It’s knee-deep, all built for duck habitat.”

When Gore did the levee work, it was laid it out so he can fill or drain any one unit by itself. Gore didn’t plant food, per-se, for the waterfowl. But, he managed each unit aggressively for moist soil plants. The units grow barnyard grass, which is a wild millet, smartweed, duck potato and others. “We didn’t plant any of this, because it’s already in the seed base since this was a wetland many years ago.”

His moist soil-management plan mostly mimics what Mother Nature used to do before the area was converted to rice land.

Back In Time. “We till the seed bed, then flood it, take the water off and let the moist-soil plants emerge, because that’s where the food is,” Gore says. “Once they get up, we put water back on to suppress the weeds and let the moist soil plants continue to grow.”

Each year, Gore used a roller chopper to roll down the moist soil plants, pushing the seeds down into the water. The work also clears the water surface for the birds. “After several years, woody plants elbow out and suppress the moist soil plants, so we have to drain it, kill everything (with Roundup and prescribed fire), till it and start the whole process over about every fourth year,” he says.

Wildlife biologists believe the moist-soil plant mix beats field crops for waterfowl.

“You can plant corn or maize or millet, and those are good for the ducks, but they don’t last long,” he says. “If you manage the native plants, then they all mature and come to seed at different times during the winter, so they provide food all winter for the waterfowl.”

Gore and his son have divided the floodable area into 11 ponds. Typically, they try to rework three of them every year. “We take all three back down to bare dirt, till them and start over,” he says.

Teal, pintails, gadwall, wigeons and northern shovelers are heavy users of Gore’s place in the winter. A few mallards are beginning to drift over from the Mississippi Flyway. A few diving ducks come in off the Gulf of Mexico, too. Ducks Unlimited’s bird counts have estimated that 8,000 to 12,000 ducks, geese and sandhill cranes overwinter on this old rice farm.

Gore and family have buried pit blinds in islands in each of the ponds. They also randomly constructed other islands.

“From a hunting perspective, these keep your blind from being the only island in the pond, but, more importantly, they provide nesting habitat for mottled ducks and some teal that stay here all year,” Gore says. “Nesting habitat in the middle of the ponds protects them from predators.”

Prairie Grasses Restored. Gore and volunteers planted native prairie grasses on the upland portions of the old farm--the ground rising from the pond edges out to the property borders. First, they killed bermudagrass and continue to fight this imported encroacher. Bermudagrass was planted for livestock, but biologists consider it mostly worthless for wildlife.

“The native prairie grass restoration project was cost-shared through the last WHIP grant in this part of the world,” Gore says. WHIP stands for Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program. It was repealed in 2014, with some of its aspects rolled into EQIP, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Prairie grass management takes patience. “This native prairie grass thing is not science, it’s an art,” Gore says. “There’s no hard recipe. Some things work, and some don’t. Being an engineer, I try to plot dots. Give me enough dots, and I can build a curve. But, I found dots scattered all over the place with this project. A lot of this has to do with your soil, rainfall, phase of the moon, sunlight hours.”

The Gores and others planted a 13-variety mix of clump grasses on their designated native prairie grass acres. These provide nesting and cover for bobwhites and songbirds. Around the waterlines of all the ponds, they planted 100-foot-wide borders of switchgrass and eastern gamagrass for nesting habitat for mottled ducks. Upland grasses include lovegrass, eastern gamagrass and sideoats, among others.

The bobwhites have responded, though not as substantially as Gore would like. Ten years ago, riding a four-wheeler across the place would flush one or two small coveys. Now, it’s 10 or 12 coveys totaling about 100 birds in a good winter, sinking to four or five coveys in lean years. The Gores have placed a moratorium on quail hunting until the birds are better established.

“Grassland species like quail are in decline because they’re losing their habitat,” notes Jon Hayes, the conservation delivery specialist for Texas Parks and Wildlife who coordinated Gore’s upland project. Now, he is science coordinator for the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in Albuquerque.

“Habitat loss is a problem we know how to fix,” he says. “We just need more landowners like the Gores who are willing to take the step. If you build the habitat, they will come. We see it over and over again.”

Who Helped?

An alphabet soup of government and wildlife groups assisted the Gore family. Texas Prairie Wetlands Project (TPWP), which is a consortium between Ducks Unlimited (DU), Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), helped with engineering, some cost-sharing, and the levee work.

“We did the prairie grass restoration with help from Jim Willis and the Wildlife Habitat Federation (WHF),” Frank Gore says. WHF is a nonprofit group that provides technical know-how and specialized equipment for establishing grasslands in southeast and central Texas. Willis is head of the WHF.

“Once we were done with the planting, Quail Forever [QF] got involved,” Gore continues. “When they say they help, they mean they’ll come out on a Saturday morning and help you burn, disk, clear brush or whatever you’re doing.”

He smiles when asked about the time, effort and money he’s put into this restoration.

“You don’t want to go into the cost of duck meat per pound,” he opines. “But you don’t have to do it on this level. You can plant flowering plants that bees and butterflies like. You can do a 5-acre plot in the woods. If everybody does something, we’ve accomplished something together. I hope that if I’ve done everything I can, my grandson will eventually take a seventh generation of the Gore family duck hunting.”


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