By Joseph Albanese, WF360 North Atlantic Flyway Migration Editor
Waterfowlers in the Empire State are eagerly awaiting a blast of Arctic air to jump-start the fall migration. Large numbers of ducks and geese pass through New York on their way south during the fall migration, but many birds also nest here, including mallards, wood ducks, American black ducks, and Canada geese.
These local waterfowl have made up the majority of hunters’ bags so far this season as mild temperatures have provided little reason for waterfowl to push south in significant numbers. The warmer-than-usual weather has meant that wood ducks, which are usually among the first birds to leave, have made up the majority of the harvest thus far.
“We’ve seen really big numbers of wood ducks taken along Lake Champlain,” explains Josh Stiller, migratory game bird specialist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. That trend continued in the Northeast and Southeast zones, with plenty of woodies to go around. But all that could be about to change.
“We’re starting to get some cold weather, which should have the ducks that nest in southern Ontario on the move,” Stiller says, although he was quick to point out that big flights of mallards and black ducks typically don’t arrive until the last two weeks of November. “The upcoming cold front should push in wigeon and gadwalls. The Niagara river is already starting to see some divers.”
Excitement about the upcoming cold front was echoed by Chris Davanso, owner of Fish and Feather Outfitters in the western Finger Lakes. “Right now, we’re still seeing a lot of wood ducks and green-winged teal, which could be around for next weekend’s opener if the incoming cold weather doesn’t push them out,” he says.
Davanso expects numbers of mallards and black ducks to climb rapidly when colder weather arrives, and fresh birds could show up just in time for the Western Zone opener.
“The big story right now is Canada geese. The Finger Lakes are loaded with them,” Davanso adds, noting that the hungry birds have been hitting the bean and silage fields hard. Almost all his fields are holding good numbers of resident geese, and he expects more honkers to ride the north winds down from Canada. “We should be covered in geese for the next couple of weeks,” he notes.
Hardcore Decoys pro-staffer Jeremy Bedette is also encouraged by the large numbers of geese in his area. Near his home along the shores of Lake Ontario, honkers have been eating both grass and cut corn. “It depends on the weather. If it’s cool, they’ll be in the corn. If it’s warm, they’ll be on the grass fields,” he explains.
Bedette likes to hunt ducks with a camera almost as much as he likes to chase them with a shotgun. Some of his favorite refuges for photography are starting to pick up pintails, indicating that the main duck migration could kick off any day now.
As for the big water, Bedette reports that sea ducks are few and far between on Lake Ontario. “If the cold conditions continue, sea ducks will start to move south next week. If not, it’s anybody’s guess,” he says. Hunters may be able to scrape out a limit of sea ducks on opening weekend, but their efforts would probably be better spent targeting puddle ducks or geese on smaller waters.
In other news, the Saint Lawrence received a big push of Atlantic brant last week. The sea geese lingered longer than usual, which afforded inland hunters a rare opportunity to harvest these coastal birds. Stiller asks hunters to be on the lookout for brant outfitted with leg bands that have a data logger attached as well as GPS transmitters.
The loggers must be downloaded to provide biologists with the valuable data they’ve collected. If you harvest one of these birds, please follow the directions on the band to get those devices into the right hands. Hunters will be given the band and data logger back as well as a replica of the GPS transmitter for a souvenir.
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Joseph J. Albanese is a New York–based freelance writer with a lifelong love of salt marshes and Atlantic Brant. Joseph will be providing habitat and hunting reports for the Atlantic Flyway during the 2018−2019 waterfowl season.