As in recent years, mild weather is offering hunters in the Chesapeake Bay region a true mixed bag as the season heads into its final two weeks. For every report of a good-to-great outing, there seem to be two tales of hunters getting skunked or nearly so.
A bright spot has been an increase in diving duck numbers. “We’ve finally got more divers in southeastern Virginia, with canvasbacks showing up recently and some bluebills on the James and York Rivers,” says Dr. Gary Costanzo, migratory bird program manager for Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources.
“More puddle ducks have shown up also, including mallards and gadwalls on the eastern rivers,” Costanzo reports. “The Pamunkey has had good numbers of ducks, and they’re still there with maybe some new arrivals. But there’s lot of water out there, and ducks can be scattered across the landscape.”
On Virginia’s Hog Island Wildlife Management Area, manager John Randolph reports, “We have had a good variety of ducks, and hunters have done well over the past three weeks. We could use some weather, though, to get the birds moving more.”
Maryland hunters often do well late in the season. DU regional biologist Jake McPherson notes, “Big ducks seem to be around, but are very localized. Several folks have mentioned to me that they’ve had good numbers of mallards and black ducks show up on managed wetlands only to have the birds move on a day or two later. This could be due to habitat availability, with lots of water on the landscape. If birds receive any hunting pressure, they just move on.”
McPherson says that he is still hearing reports of people bagging wood ducks and teal across the Delmarva Peninsula, which is not typical for this time of year. He also notes that black ducks are around in “decent numbers” in Lower Shore marshes, but he speculates that they may be mainly local birds.
In contrast to reports from the Virginia side of the bay, McPherson is hearing from landowners and hunters that divers, except for buffleheads, seem to be sparse from the Eastern Bay (located between Queen Anne's and Talbot Counties in Maryland) down to Tangier Sound. Maryland’s special sea duck season recently closed with numbers below what McPherson would have expected. “There were decent numbers of [long-tailed] ducks but very few scoters,” he says.
Canada goose numbers seem to be growing, although not in the huge flocks seen in years past. McPherson adds that goose numbers are building in the Mid-Bay area with Easton and Cambridge reporting lots of birds right now.
“It was tough hunting at the end of the last segment due to the full moon,” McPherson says.
Snow geese can be found in moderate numbers in the Mid-Bay area, with peak numbers present in Kent County, Maryland, and Sussex, Delaware. Tundra swans have been spotted across the Eastern Shore.
DU’s Chip Heaps, who reports from his home on the Chester River in Maryland, says that puddle ducks have been scarce during shooting hours. “That being said,” Heaps adds, “I have had several good hunts as have others I have talked to, although most everyone is saying that their harvest is off from last year by 20 to 40 percent.”
Mixed bags have been the rule in Heaps’ area, with mainly mallards, black ducks, wigeon, shovelers, and, yes, wood ducks in the harvest. Heaps hunts just above Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge. While numbers of diving ducks observed there have been low, Heaps said one fellow hunter just reported witnessing “as many bluebills as he’s ever seen” during a body-booting hunt on the nearby flats.
Josh Homyack, waterfowl project manager for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, says the culprits for many lackluster hunts this season have been “poor hunting weather with no freeze-thaw cycles to concentrate birds, plus particularly good habitat conditions due to ample rainfall, which have allowed waterfowl to spread out.”
With a little less than two weeks left, hunters throughout the Chesapeake Bay region are hoping that colder weather in the forecast will shake things up and provide a strong finish to the season.