Migration Alert: Early Success, Hunters Now Wait for Winter Weather Along the Chesapeake

Dec. 3, 2020 – Atlantic Flyway – Chesapeake Bay Region

© Michael Furtman

Waterfowlers around the Chesapeake Bay region are hoping December brings the stuff that has television weather reporters gushing about blustery, freezing cold conditions. Whatever it takes to roust reluctant migrating ducks still hanging to the north, diehard gunners are saying, “Bring it!” The ideal scenario includes enough cold weather to freeze secluded, abundant pockets of water that are now offering local sanctuary for loafing birds.

Many hunters enjoyed early success in November. The upper tidal section of Virginia’s Rappahannock River and tributaries along the Potomac River reverberated with daybreak shotgun volleys. 

Dr. Gary Costanzo, migratory bird program manager for Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources, says, “I think we had a fair number of birds when our two-week Thanksgiving segment opened. I heard some reports of pretty good hunts–woodies, teal, gadwall, some ringnecks–but the birds have thinned out since then. Some may have moved out or just gone into hiding after the shooting started. There’s a lot of water around and many places to hide right now.” 

John Randolph manages the storied Hog Island Wildlife Management Area in Virginia’s Surry County. He reports excellent habitat conditions and good variety and numbers of ducks, mostly green-winged teal, mallards, and black ducks with some pintails, divers, and geese also in the mix.

“So far this year, the island has seen a big difference in the number of birds from last year,” Randolph says, although warm weather didn’t help hunters bag many ducks on the first two managed hunts of the year.

Across the Chesapeake Bay, Jake McPherson, DU’s regional biologist for Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia, says he hunted several times during Maryland’s November season. Compared to past years, he personally saw fewer dabbling ducks, but he heard reports of some hunters experiencing good shooting.

“My personal feeling is that, in Maryland, we are currently between pushes of ducks, with early migrators (teal, wood ducks, etc.) in large part having moved on to lower latitudes and big ducks (mallards, black ducks, etc.) mostly still staging to our north,” McPherson says. “That said,” he adds, “I did hear of some successful hunts in Delaware and in the mid-shore region of Maryland during the November season.”

Wood ducks, teal, wigeon and gadwall were the mainstay birds of those reports.

The Chesapeake Region encompasses a considerable expanse of land and waters.

Josh Homyack, Maryland Department of Natural Resources waterfowl project manager, reports seeing black ducks arriving in late October and hearing of good numbers of green-winged teal, especially on the mid-shore. He suspects many wood ducks have moved south.

Homyack echoes McPherson’s and Costanzo’s insights, adding ample precipitation has the landscape filled with waterfowl habitat. Birds have “lots of places to hide and not much reason to move.”

Chip Heaps, DU’s senior director of development in the Mid-Atlantic, says, he heard mixed reports. “What has been consistent, though, is that most everyone I have talked to had a very good first two splits on wood ducks, but not so much on mallards and other puddle ducks,” says Heaps.

“Purely anecdotal, but I am seeing a solid number of geese and mallards on our stretch of Langford Creek (off the Chester River in Kent County) and hearing there are a fair number of ducks around, but they are not flying much during legal shooting hours,” Heaps adds, a situation usually not remedied until a freeze.

Goosese numbers seem to be slowly building throughout the region, but certainly not in the waves experienced in years past. Diving duck numbers are also increasing. 

McPherson says he was surprised to see relatively large numbers of scaup near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in early and mid-November, adding that staff members at the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge estimated up to 4,000 diving ducks were in the vicinity by mid-November.

“Usually, divers don’t show up here in force until December,” McPherson notes.

Costanzo also reports divers showing on the Potomac River and in northern areas of Virginia. The birds are taking their time spreading southward. Potomac tributaries are already hosting considerable buffleheads.

“There have been fair numbers of geese and swans migrating south the past week or two, and we had some swans in places fairly early this year,” Costanzo notes, adding he believes goose numbers seem a bit low for this time of year.

McPherson also estimates current Maryland goose numbers to be low to moderate compared with this time in previous years. Homyack is still figuring the out the big birds, saying, “Sometimes, it seems pretty light and then they appear out of thin air and change my opinion. I feel like I've seen small steady pushes of high-flyers on every north wind for the last month so, maybe slowly building.”

Expected colder weather this week may bring yet another push of birds into the region.

“If we get cold and things freeze, I'd guess the hunting will take dramatic turn for the better; but waiting for the weather is the same old duck hunters’ story!” adds Homyack.