By Chuck Petrie
Warmer autumns and winters in recent years, habitat changes, and new food sources are affecting duck distribution as well as waterfowling opportunities
Ducks migrating south in winter aren't unlike hordes of college kids heading out on spring break.
The vacationing scholars seek unlimited rations of cold beer, warm beaches, fast tans, and brief dalliances with members of the opposite sex. To accomplish these lofty goals, some students travel to the customary venues: Daytona Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, and San Padre Island. Others, the trendsetters, seek out newer, more stylish outposts in the sun, however near or far their usually meager travel budgets allow (and wherever tattoo and body-piercing services are available).
When they stumble onto a rich new territory, their cohorts eventually follow in droves.
Ducks, in comparison, head south in search of copious rations of food, places where sunshine at least keeps water in a liquid state, and seasonal relationships (admittedly short, but somewhat longer and more meaningful than those of their collegiate counterparts) with members of the opposite sex. Like the kids, too, some birds frequent traditional wintering areas, while others pioneer new territories. When these explorers happen upon new, exploitable habitats, their cohorts also eventually follow in droves.
In the Atlantic Flyway, for instance, old-time duck hangouts such as Back Bay, Virginia; Albemarle and Pamlico sounds in North Carolina; and the DelMarva region's Chesapeake Bay still winter ducks, but not the quantities they did in days of yore. East Coast waterfowl hunters know this only too well.
Hurricane damage to shallow- water feeding areas and other forms of habitat degradation are major reasons for declines in duck visitations to these waters.
On Chesapeake Bay, as an example, water quality declines have affected the habitat to the point that many canvasbacks that formerly wintered there now travel to Louisiana's Catahoula Lake to sit out the cold months. Coastal Maine, on the other hand, is still a hotspot for sea ducks, and New Jersey's Brigantine salt marshes remain a haven for black ducks.
Of course, sea ducks require and black ducks prefer marine habitats, so that they haven't changed wintering grounds is no surprise. But what about other Atlantic Flyway ducks, especially mallards?
Ray Whittemore, DU's regional biological supervisor for the Atlantic Flyway, says that the mallard population there has increased significantly in recent years as the species has made incursions into traditional black duck breeding range in Ontario and the Maritime Provinces.
But not all of those mallards have been migrating to traditional wintering areas in the flyway over the last couple of years, primarily due to warm fall and early winter weather. Whittemore says, "Many of the mallards and Canada geese in the flyway are stacking up in the Finger Lakes of New York, particularly near Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and Cayuga Lake.