Like the swallows to Capistrano, dove hunters will be returning to fields around Texas Sept. 1 to close out the dog days of summer and welcome the beginning of the fall hunting season.
Anticipation is always high for the first hunt of the year, and this year hunters shouldn't be disappointed in bird numbers.
"Things are looking pretty good," said Shaun Oldenburger, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's dove program leader. "There should be a little increase in mourning dove numbers from last year. There are some significant increases in the Edwards Plateau, Gulf Prairies and South Texas."
But no longer is Texas just a mourning dove state. Last year Texas hunters killed an estimated 3.5 million mourning dove and another 1.2 million white-winged dove.
"Whitewing production is looking good. I think that is a good thing for hunters. Last year we saw a pretty significant decrease in the mourning dove harvest (according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data) that was related to a decrease in hunter numbers. Whitewing harvest numbers have stayed the same," Oldenburger noted.
The biologist said whitewing numbers are especially increasing in several regions including the Cross Timbers region of Northcentral Texas and the Blacklands Prairie region just to the east of the Cross Timbers.
"Breeding numbers from late May and early June were about 5.3 million, which is up from last year's 5.1 million," Oldenburger said.
He added white-winged dove aren't just up in North Texas. Outfitters in the state's Coastal Bend region are no longer advertising mourning dove hunts, but are selling whitewing hunts in the rice and sesame fields.
Oldenburger also said as more suburban housing developments encroach into farm country that the whitewing numbers will just continue to increase because they provide the perfect habitat situation.
Last year's FWS mourning dove harvest has raised some concerns among Texas officials. Last year's 3.5 harvest is significantly down from an estimated 5 million just a few years ago.
"Population-wise we haven't seen a dramatic decrease. From 2004 to 2014 we had a peak in 2010 and then it decreased in 2011-12 (drought years) and then was back up in 2013 and 2014," Oldenburger said. He added in all, long-term averages show about 24.5 million breeding mourning dove in the state annually.
Similarly there are questions about the feds hunter head count which declined to 175,000 last year after having been over 275,000 for five or six years.
Oldenburger said he is anticipating good bird numbers this season because weather conditions should have resulted in multiple nesting efforts by both mourning doves and whitewings. He said mourning doves can nest up to six times a year in Texas while whitewings have been documented nest as many as three times. He added whitewings generally are more successful nesters than mourning dove.
"Usually if you look at all bird species the first nesting is the most successful. If you get two or three initial attempts you do well. Anything after that is gravy," he said.
Oldenburger said he doesn't think unusual cold fronts in July and August have forced dove to begin an early migration, with the possible exception of in the High Plains where temperatures dipped into the 50s.
He said a bigger issue for hunters in traditional dove hunting areas is that with the return of rain this summer has come full ponds statewide. Hunters may not find the birds as concentrated as they were in the last three or four years.
Eurasian collared doves, Texas' third largest dove population, has quickly become a factor also. A non-regulated species, biologists estimate the population has grown to about 3 million since they first arrived in the state in the mid-1990s.
There were a lot of concerns when the larger Eurasians first appeared in the state, the biggest being that they carried diseases that mourning dove and white-winged doves might not be immune to. However, even though the concerns remain they haven't played out to this point. Oldenburger said it could be because the Eurasians tend to have limited contact with mourning doves and are more likely to be found in singles or pairs except around feed lot-type situations.
This year's North and Central zones' early season will run through Oct. 20 and then reopen Dec. 19-Jan. 7, 2015.
In South Texas the regular South Zone season will begin Sept. 19 and run through Oct. 20. It will open again Dec. 19 through Jan. 25.
South Texas' Special White-Winged Dove Area will be open Sept. 6-7 and 13-14, and then Sept. 19-Oct. 20 and Dec. 19-Jan. 21.