Migration Alert: Chesapeake Bay Area Hunters Face Shifting Conditions, Decent Waterfowl Numbers

Jan. 11, 2023 – Atlantic Flyway – Chesapeake Bay

© Michael Furtman

A few days of sustained below-freezing temperatures in Virginia and Maryland over the holidays created opportunities for hunters with access to open water to enjoy some great gunning. Wood ducks, though, which have been a staple for much of the season, mostly skedaddled south during the freeze.

Josh Homyack, Maryland Department of Natural Resources waterfowl project manager, says things look good overall in his area.

“We have good numbers of Canada geese, and I've seen some places absolutely loaded up with puddle ducks and divers,” Homyack says. “The recent strong cold front and deep freeze really seem to have moved birds into the Chesapeake region.”

Christmas weekend saw many Maryland tidal creeks, ponds and marshes freeze. Hunters without access to open water likely had “tough sledding,” Homyack says. But he expects good hunting conditions for many hunters in the near term.

Chip Heaps, on Maryland’s Easter Shore, has his finger on the pulse of waterfowl movements in the Chestertown area, one of the top duck and goose hunting areas on the bay. Heaps has seen a “really mixed bag” since the deep freeze and thaw. “I think we have a good number of Canada geese around but I’m not sure they are dispersed as much as usual,” he says, noting he’s speaking strictly of Kent County and the Chestertown area.

Like Homyack, he believes the thaw and access to open water will open things up for many hunters. “There still seems to be a decent number of puddle ducks in the area,” Heaps notes.

Heavy rainfall and record-high temperatures that followed the cold snap have scattered birds and made hunting challenging on southern portions of Chesapeake Bay.

For example, Monquin Creek Outfitters’ Chip Watkins operates in multiple locations from North Carolina to Virginia’s Pamunkey and Rappahannock Rivers. The freeze brought him a bounty of wigeon, gadwall and pintails, as well as increasing numbers of green-winged teal, but he lost most of his wood ducks. Tundra swans are also scarce, and his sea duck hunting has been slow.

Chuck O’Bier, a charter fishing captain and avid waterfowler who hunts the tidal creeks along the Potomac River in Virginia, says buffleheads are providing the bulk of the action. “Other than that, we’ve seen a few redheads, a few bluebills, and a handful of goldeneyes. Most of the scoters are at the mouth of the river and still in the bay. We need more cold weather,” O’Bier says.

Ben Lewis, waterfowl biologist with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, says he’s not sure what to expect in the upcoming weeks. “We seemed to have a good number of birds before the freeze, but I think we lost a lot of teal and the majority of the last wood ducks,” Lewis says. “I don’t think puddle duck numbers have been as high as we would normally expect, but we have seen a good number of black ducks.”

Lewis shares that recent waterfowl surveys yielded below-average numbers of swans and puddle ducks, with geese and divers about average, but he adds that the recent rainfall and considerable hunting pressure during the recent survey likely had birds spread out.

The recent warm temperatures aren’t helping with bird movements either. “Most geese and ducks will be content loafing on the big water, especially when the wind is not blowing,” Lewis says.

As a result, Chesapeake waterfowlers are once again hoping for another shot of colder weather, which will hopefully arrive in time for many hunters to end the season on a high note.