Migration Alert: Incoming Winter Weather Improves Hunting Outlook on Chesapeake Bay

Jan. 14, 2022

© Michael Furtman

Waterfowl hunting reports from the Atlantic Flyway have been a mixed bag this season, with some areas offering good hunting while many others have been mediocre at best. As the season enters the home stretch, hunters on Chesapeake Bay and neighboring areas are hoping this latest winter storm system, which is now bringing cold weather and precipitation across the Ohio Valley and northeastern United States, will finally push the bulk of the flyway’s ducks and geese south.

Huge flocks of snow geese typically blanket the Eastern Shore by mid-January.

Josh Homyack, waterfowl project manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, says he’s getting reports of snow geese starting to arrive, but adds, “It is very late for them.”

“I feel the same about Canada geese,” Homyack adds. “Some days I feel pretty positive and others I wonder if there’s a goose around anywhere.”

As for ducks, Homyack reports that he’s been surprised by how many dabbling ducks have been around this fall and winter, given how dry and warm the weather has been until recently. “We still had wood ducks as of last week, which seems crazy given that they’ll begin nesting in Maryland in mid-February,” Homyack says. “There are some scaup in Maryland, but still below-average numbers and very few redheads, canvasbacks and scoters.”

“About two weeks ago, there was a big push of blackheads (scaup), redheads and ruddy ducks into the Upper Bay,” says DU Regional Biologist Jake McPherson, “but they seem to have moved further down the estuary. I’ve also heard spotty reports of canvasbacks here and there. I saw a slight uptick in dabbler numbers ahead of the snowstorm last week but nothing substantial.”

McPherson labels dabbler numbers “below average” thus far. 

During his sea duck outings on the East Bay and Tangier Sound, McPherson observed very few longtail ducks, and scoter numbers were also below average. 

Dr. Gary Costanzo, migratory bird program manager for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), reports, “I think we have fair numbers of birds—not great and likely slightly below average. Birds seem to be concentrated in some locations but thin in others.”

Specifically, mallards can be found in some areas, but not in big numbers. Gadwall and wigeon numbers remain low. While larger species of diving ducks remain sparse, good numbers of ringnecks are scattered throughout the region.

“We still had good numbers of wood ducks prior to the last few days but are starting to get some ice now so they may move out shortly,” Costanzo says. “Maybe the canvasbacks will show up with this next cold front.”

Virginia’s Canada goose numbers are better than a few weeks ago, but still below average. Swan numbers look good on the James River and in Back Bay, Costanzo says, but are thin on some other traditional areas. He says sea duck numbers have really picked up on the Bay’s Western Shore.

Ben Lewis, Virginia DWR’s state waterfowl biologist, is optimistic that colder weather will improve waterfowl numbers and hunting success. “More puddle ducks are showing up in places, and with the cold temperatures north of us, I think we could be in for a good remainder of the season,” Lewis says.

After speaking with many hunters, McPherson says the “overwhelming consensus” is the 2021−22 season has been tough, but hope remains. “I try to stay optimistic, and I’m hopeful the three weeks remaining in the season will be better,” McPherson says.