Migration Alert: Arctic Blast Sends Massive Push of Geese to Maryland's Eastern Shore

Jan. 8, 2014 - Atlantic Flyway - Maryland
By Kyle Wintersteen, WF360 Atlantic Flyway Migration Editor

Waterfowl are on the move in the Atlantic Flyway, following an Arctic blast that has brought bitter cold temperatures to much of the region. For Maryland hunters—particularly those who reside on the state's famed Eastern Shore—the polar plunge has brought a massive influx of Canada geese.

"We have one heck of a bunch of geese right now," says Larry Hindman, waterfowl project manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). "Many people, including biologists, have remarked that they've never seen so many. It's not only migratory birds—and we are on a major flight path for Atlantic population Canadas—but resident geese pushed down by the cold and snow to the north. The hunting has been excellent, and my guess is it will continue to be that way through the end of the month."

Chesapeake Bay gives Maryland a unique advantage during extreme cold. The freeze line generally runs along the Bay Bridge—about the middle of the estuary—providing plenty of open water when little else is available.

"When I drove across the bridge this morning, slush had begun to accumulate about 100 yards off-shore and will likely freeze, but that still leaves a lot of open water," says Jake McPherson, Ducks Unlimited's regional biologist in Maryland. "Much of the Susquehanna Flats and the bay's northern flats are already frozen, which pushes birds to the central bay area. So I expect really strong numbers of divers, especially scaup and a few canvasbacks, along the Bay Bridge and points farther south."

Hindman also reports the arrival of new flights of diving ducks. "Last week I hunted the Little Choptank River and saw only two flocks of bluebills, but I observed several very large flocks of them Saturday. Canvasbacks generally arrive later and later it seems, but this year I suspect we already have good numbers of them as well. Some hunters are saying that the divers aren't in typical areas in typical numbers, but that isn't consistent with what I've seen. There should be plenty of good shooting to be found."

According to the Maryland DNR's initial midwinter survey observations, large numbers of dabbling ducks, especially mallards, black ducks, and gadwalls, are also present, albeit in major concentrations in limited locations. "One of our biologists flew the Nanticoke River and saw thousands of mallards, but they were in three specific locations," Hindman reports. "Dorcester County had similar concentrations. Mallards and black ducks winter here, of course, and we're probably pretty close to peak numbers. We're also still seeing surprisingly good pintail numbers for this time of year and some huge gadwall numbers. There are some greenwings around as well. A friend of mine hunted the Honga River Monday and shot mallards, pintails, and greenwings."

However, Canada geese are the Eastern Shore's bread-and-butter birds, and while they may be present in epic numbers, hunting them in extreme cold can be challenging. Both McPherson and Hindman advise goose hunters to focus on agriculture fields during the afternoon hours.

"Geese won't move much below 22 degrees because they'd prefer to wait for the temperature to level out," Hindman explains. "On really cold mornings, they may not fly at all, opting to feed in the afternoon. That can make for some great evening hunts."

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.