Migration Alert: Habitat, Bird Numbers Improve Across Chesapeake Region

Dec. 2, 2022 – Atlantic Flyway – Chesapeake Bay

© Michael Furtman

Waterfowl hunters in the Chesapeake Bay region are seeing bird numbers increase as cold weather to the north has quickened the pace of the migration throughout the Atlantic Flyway.

In Virginia, Canada geese finally began arriving in substantial flocks last week, showing up in agricultural fields along the tidal Rappahannock River. Ben Lewis, waterfowl biologist with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, says he heard Old Dominion hunters enjoyed a “pretty good” second split.

“I’ve had several reports of good numbers of wood ducks, mallards and black ducks with some green-winged teal added to the mix,” Lewis adds. “There are also some diving ducks around.”

John Randolph manages the storied Hog Island Wildlife Management Area on the James River in Surry County. Hunting is limited to Saturdays only on this popular WMA.

“Habitat is excellent and water levels are good,” Randolph says. “Hunters did fairly well, taking mixed bags of puddle ducks and divers. We have had plenty of mallards and black ducks along with a few gadwalls. The divers have been plentiful, with ruddy ducks, ringnecks, hooded mergansers and a few buffleheads.”

Randolph added that goose numbers at Hog Island were just “fair” through November and swans have been scarce.

Across the bay on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, observations at the Blackwater and Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuges are often good indicators of how the migration is progressing. Waterfowl numbers on these refuges are tracked by species and counted by experienced volunteers.

Marcia Pradines Long, the complex leader for the Chesapeake Marshlands NWR Complex, says, “At Blackwater, Canada goose numbers continue to climb. Northern pintail numbers remain impressive, and a large number of tundra swans are present.”

The latest counts, which were tabulated just over a week ago, included 2,250 pintails, 2,247 mallards, 375 green-winged teal, and 7,908 Canada geese. Smaller numbers of gadwalls, black ducks, ruddy ducks, wigeon and scaup were also reported.

Pradines Long also reports seeing a substantial influx of geese on the refuge complex, and she expects the next count to be substantially higher. However, habitat impacted by persistent drought remains a big issue.

“Even with some recent rainfall, it’s still pretty dry, leaving a lot of potential habitat unavailable to waterfowl,” reports John Homyack, waterfowl project manager for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.

“We've had a fair number of geese on the upper shore since mid-October, and I've heard some good wood duck reports from the early part of our second season segment, but I expect most of those birds have moved south by now,” Homyack says.

Jake McPherson, DU’s director of development in the Mid-Atlantic region, reports that he hunted in the Canadian Maritimes in late October, and unseasonably warm weather in the region had delayed the migration while he was there. “That said, I’ve had several successful hunts in both Maryland and Virginia since then,” McPherson says.

Taylor Deemer, DU’s regional director in Delaware, says conditions in the state were very dry through late summer and into fall, although southern portions of the state received 10-plus inches of rain in mid-October from the remnants of a hurricane. This temporarily recharged some wetlands, but many have since gone dry again.

“I’m seeing good numbers of black ducks, green-winged teal, pintails and gadwalls in our coastal marshes along the Broadkill, Mispillion and Murderkill Rivers, Deemer says. “We received a push of mallards as well in the second week of November.”

Snow geese, which are always popular with Delaware and Maryland waterfowlers, seem late in arriving, Deemer adds. “Typically, I begin seeing flocks in fields around the first week of November,” he says.

While Deemer has heard migrating snows on several nights over the last two weeks, he hasn’t seen any in the area. Tundra swans, however, have shown up in good numbers. “They are blanketing all the usual borrow pits and wheat fields that the birds have historically used across the state. I know several hunters who successfully filled their Delaware swan permit last week,” Deemer says.

McPherson says the dry conditions mean arriving ducks and geese tend to congregate in areas with available water. Find that water and you will likely find some good shooting. More rainfall in the forecast may help improve habitat conditions heading into the final segments of the season.

When it comes to hunting puddle ducks on the Chesapeake, though, nothing warms things up like frigid conditions in states to the north. “Here's hoping we get some old-fashioned cold weather to move into the northeast, as that's what it will take to turn things around in our neck of the woods,” Homyack says.

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