By Kyle Wintersteen
Atlantic Flyway duck hunters have been praying for rain to fill drought-stricken marshes and improve habitat for migrating waterfowl. However, nobody asked for it to arrive with the speed and intensity of Hurricane Sandy. The storm carries with it damaging winds and heavy rainfall, and it occurs at an odd time of year—migrating waterfowl are accustomed to northern cold fronts, but how will they react to severe weather from the south?
"There is obviously great concern for the people who are in Hurricane Sandy's path," said Ducks Unlimited's New York regional biologist Sarah Fleming. "But for ducks the storm could mean good news."
New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania—the very states being impacted by Sandy as you read this—had hot, dry summers that produced an abundance of natural foods in wetland basins. Unfortunately much of those basins are now dry and therefore inaccessible to hungry, migrating ducks. Sandy's rains could change that in a hurry, creating floating feasts of acorns, corn and more.
"The magic number is 4 inches of rainfall or more," Fleming said. "If that's how much we get, migrating waterfowl will find much better habitat and foraging opportunities."
Hunters also should fare better once Sandy's rains have replenished seasonal wetlands. If your early split has been anything like mine, then your scouting has been all about finding food and, more importantly, water. One of my favorite honeyholes in central Pennsylvania—a nice wide slough surrounded by corn that leads to a farm pond—was but a trickle, as were the resident mallards that normally pile in. Fortunately it appears the stage will be set for migrating blacks and mallards, few of which have arrived to date.
"Once the storm subsides, smart hunters should focus on exploiting newly flooded habitat to find dabbling ducks; larger lakes to find migrant divers, many of which have used the full moon to fly in from the west; and look for large concentrations of Canada geese, which are abundant across New York at this time."
What's the bad news? For the time being, there may be very few ducks to speak of. The recent cold front that swept as far south as Texas caused a major migration along the Mississippi Flyway, but had little effect on the Atlantic.
"Temperatures have remained relatively warm across New York and eastern Canada, so for now any new migration of birds will probably be limited," said Fleming. "And on top of that, Sandy could scatter the relatively low number of ducks that we do have in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania right now."
So, expect the potential for lousy hunting until the next cold front arrives. But more importantly stay safe, fellow waterfowlers. Let's wait out this storm with the knowledge that better days are ahead, including for the ducks.
Find habitat and hunting reports in your area on the Ducks Unlimited Migration Map.