By Ken Perrotte, WF360 South Atlantic Flyway Migration Editor
The northeastern United States is finally getting a week of sustained cold weather, and waterfowlers in the Chesapeake Bay region couldn’t be happier. It’s nothing personal, or maybe it is at this point. Every report of a puff of cold wind “up north” has yielded a “Maybe this will move in some birds,” dialogue among Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware waterfowlers. But ducks aren’t fast-breaking toward the Delmarva Peninsula—rather, it has been more of a slow dribble.
The current season is nearly over and it has been a tough one. My most recent hunting trip to the Upper Potomac River on January 18 yielded a wonderful biscuits-and-gravy breakfast in the blind, but precious few ducks or geese.
Ducks that arrived early and staged in the upper reaches of the greater Chesapeake Bay region have mostly moved farther south. Rick Bouchelle, who monitors the action from his operating base near Havre de Grace at the Upper Bay Museum in North East, says that hunters gunning the storied Susquehanna Flats have reported a lot of ducks moving south toward Rock Hall, near the mouth of the Chester River. “We've got a lot of ruddies and buffleheads, but most of the canvasbacks, redheads, and blackheads [scaup] left about two weeks ago,” Bouchelle says. “We've got some geese but not a lot of migrants, mainly locals. Goose hunting has been hard up here all year. We had swans early too.”
Josh Homyack, waterfowl program manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, essentially confirms Bouchelle’s report, noting that good numbers of divers remained through November, until most left that area. “It’s possible it had something to do with the record rainfall and the large amounts of freshwater coming down the Susquehanna,” Homyack says, “but that’s a similar story for most Bay tributaries this year.”
Homyack cites reports of hunters enjoying generally good hunting for scaup and canvasbacks on both shores of the Bay and the Potomac River, especially south from Rock Hall and Hart-Miller Island (just east of Baltimore).
“Many years, these birds stack up in large flocks of 20,000 or more and are very difficult to hunt,” Homyack says. “This year, they are fairly spread out, and most tidal rivers and creeks have smaller bunches of these ducks scattered around, making them much more huntable. As usual, there are redheads from the Choptank River south and I'd guess hunters are getting into them as well.”
Homyack says puddle duck hunting has been inconsistent. The abundant rainfall and lack of ice until these waning days of the season probably allowed puddle ducks to spread out over the landscape. “Of course, that may change a bit if things stay frozen,” he adds.
DU Regional Biologist Jake McPherson offers another take on the situation. He agrees, with few exceptions, that reports of good dabbling duck hunting are rare this year. But he adds, “This makes me think that the dabblers we do have are congregated in specific areas as opposed to being spread across the peninsula like we see in some years.”
McPherson visited Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge last week and saw average numbers of waterfowl, in line with what he’d expect at this time of year. “They had substantial numbers of dabblers—mostly mallards, pintails, and shovelers—plus geese and swans in their impoundments and agricultural fields,” he notes.
McPherson calls diver duck numbers “strong” from Rock Hall to the Maryland state line. The Chester River is loaded with scaup, and canvasbacks are spread throughout Eastern Shore tributaries from the Chester River down to the Choptank River. Redheads can be found in Tangier and Pocomoke Sounds.
Gary Costanza, migratory bird specialist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, recently participated in aerial surveys in this region. He is a little more circumspect about numbers on the Virginia side of the bay. “We’re still down some on dabblers,” he observes, “but we have more now than a week or two ago. Some more gadwalls have showed up, along with some black ducks and pintails.”
Costanza continues to point to the excessive water on the landscape and the opportunity for birds to spread out, but he’s hopeful that that could change in this final week of the season. “I think things might change in a big way here after this big freeze on Monday and Tuesday—we’ll see,” he says.
Overall, geese and swan numbers are down from last year. Costanza said swan numbers are down considerably in Virginia, while goose numbers are average or slightly below. Virginia hunters along the Rappahannock River are finding that there aren’t a lot of “new” birds that are easy to fool. Big decoy spreads with varied looks are improving success rates with the wary geese.
McPherson adds, “Although the data isn’t published yet, I’ve heard that the Canada goose counts were down significantly from last year in the Maryland midwinter waterfowl survey. This may be skewed a bit because the survey was flown during icy conditions last year, which forced birds to congregate and made them easier to count. This year has been very wet, with little ice, allowing birds to be dispersed across the peninsula outside of survey area.
“My personal observation has been that geese have not shown up in force but I have seen a significant push of birds over the last week,” McPherson says. “I’ve heard Chestertown is currently holding a lot of birds. From the stories I hear and my personal experience, Canada geese have been tough.”
With duck season winding down, hunters who like to pursue big flocks of snow geese in Maryland and Delaware can begin salivating. Homyack says he has personally observed flocks of 20,000 to 50,000 on the upper Eastern Shore.
Ken Perrotte is a freelance writer and editor based in Virginia’s Northern Neck who hunts waterfowl throughout the Mid-Atlantic. Perrotte will be providing habitat and hunting reports for the Altantic Flyway throughout the 2018-2019 waterfowl season.