By Kyle Wintersteen, WF360 Atlantic Flyway Migration Editor
Last weekend, waterfowlers along the South Carolina coast put up numbers that would be impressive anywhere in the country. Hunter-success rates approached a limit of ducks per person at two wildlife management areas.
"As of Saturday, we had plenty of birds around in the coastal regions," says Dean Harrigal, waterfowl biologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. "Hunters averaged 5.8 ducks per person on one wildlife management area (WMA), which is really pretty good for a public-land hunt. And that's despite 65 degree weather and calm winds—you need a lot of birds around to do well in those conditions."
Major influxes of waterfowl have been observed on the Santee Delta WMA and Ace Basin National Wildlife Refuge, two of South Carolina's primary waterfowl wintering areas. Field reports indicate that strong numbers of ducks are in the Lake Marion area as well.
According to Harrigal, gadwalls and northern shovelers are the most common species in these areas, but hunters are also taking American wigeon, pintails, greenwings and a few remaining bluewings. Further inland, wood ducks are the main prize, and they too are arriving intermittently in strong numbers, perhaps driven by recent wintery conditions to the north.
"I think the migration is progressing nicely overall," Harrigal says. "The bluewings were late, but that seemed to be consistent for everyone from Louisiana to Florida. In early November we started picking up a fair number of ducks, and the birds have gradually built over the last four to five weeks. The bluewings are trickling away, but we still have a lot of pintails and the other species continue to filter in."
As good as the hunting has been, Harrigal has yet to observe what he considers the pinnacle of South Carolina waterfowling: a major movement of green-winged teal.
"We still haven't seen the big slug of greenwings that seems to arrive every year all at once," he says.
What will it take to get that last push?
"Well, it's tough to predict, because ducks are just like the stock market: past performance is not a true indicator of future trends," Harrigal says. "In South Carolina though, the birds we get are the result of adverse weather around us. Dry weather can actually work as well as a cold front, because the birds are going to keep moving until they find water. The greenwings should show up in the coming weeks, but actually I think as long as the local weather cooperates, we have enough ducks to be okay for a while. It sure is nice to be off to a strong start."
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.