By Kyle Wintersteen, WF360 Atlantic Flyway Migration Editor
Flocks of mallards and black ducks poured over the tree-line in a seemingly unending string. They were in bunches of tens and twenties, mostly, but several flocks numbered at least 100 strong as the birds funneled down into the Pennsylvania cornfield.
"There were definitely more than 500 ducks, probably closer to a thousand," says Tyler Coleman, who serves on the committee of the Middle Creek, Pennsylvania Ducks Unlimited Chapter. "We've gone back nearly every night since just to watch. It's a heck of a sight."
Coleman has scouted additional sites in Centre County and a few toward the Lancaster area holding 100-200 mallards and black ducks. The enthusiasm in his voice is evident: With a month of hunting left, Pennsylvania is at or nearing peak mallard and black duck numbers.
"I think the migration will peak any day now," says Coleman, a full-time college student who scouts at least two hours every day of the season. "I still haven't seen the massive push like we got during the tail end of last season, but we're close. My contacts in Erie are reporting big numbers of ducks, plus strong cold and snow. Usually that means central and southern PA can expect lots of fresh birds during the next 7-10 days."
John Dunn, a waterfowl biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, has heard similar reports from Erie.
"The guys on the lake did pretty well last week, especially with scaup, so this shot of cold weather may signal the push of divers we've been waiting for as well," Dunn says. "Mallards are probably at or just a tad beyond their peak in some parts of the state. We're seeing large, steady movements, which are likely the result of the mild weather we had earlier followed by the freezing conditions now affecting the northern states and Canada."
Birds flocked to Pennsylvania a tad behind schedule this year, with sporadic arrivals of gadwalls, American wigeon and pintails through November.
"Hunters on the Susquehanna got a lot of gadwalls and pintails right after Thanksgiving," Dunn notes.
A noticeable shift occurred two weeks ago when a series of small snow and ice storms began sweeping through. Coleman and the author both noticed their bags transitioned from fat, local birds to thinner, presumably northern mallards.
"They're hitting the corn big-time right now in search of food," Coleman says. "I normally see that occurring later in the season, but we're getting freezing temperatures earlier than the last couple years. A lot of water is now locked up too, and I've seen birds hitting just about any open water in some cases. We've done especially well lately hunting creeks and springs while it's spitting snow or sleet. I know some people prefer those blue sky days, but recently bad weather has been lucky for us. It seems like the ducks have been more active in it."
According to Dunn, vast numbers of Canada geese are pouring into the state's "Atlantic Population Zone." With the zone set to reopen goose season on December 16, these are timely arrivals.
"We get a lot of our geese from the New York Finger Lakes and Ontario, which are really cold and getting some pretty good lake-effect snow right now," Dunn says. "The geese are really moving out of there and heading to us. Some years with really brutal conditions we lose even our resident geese as they flee to the Chesapeake. However, we haven't seen conditions yet that would warrant that. Between our resident birds and the recent migratory arrivals, it's shaping up to be a terrific goose season."
All things considered, Pennsylvanians may be wise to cancel all non-duck related plans through Christmas. There are a wealth of birds to be hunted, especially if discipline is exercised.
"I snuck out before class for an hour yesterday and we probably had 50-60 birds work," Coleman says. "We shot a quick five and got out of there. I drove by at lunch and the hole was covered back up in mallards."
Kyle Wintersteen is a freelance writer and passionate waterfowler who has hunted the Atlantic Flyway for two decades. Wintersteen will provide hunting and habitat reports for the Atlantic Flyway throughout the 2013-2014 waterfowl season.