Migration Alert: Sea Ducks Hit the Rhode Island Coast, Geese Descend on Pennsylvania

Dec. 6, 2018 – Atlantic Flyway – Rhode Island and Pennsylvania

Photo © Rob Sabatini

By Joseph Albanese, WF360 North Atlantic Flyway Migration Editor

Sea ducks are starting to settle into Rhode Island’s coastal waters, and Canada geese have made their way into Pennsylvania. Rain continues to create new habitat but also access issues for hunters, with many hoping for a freeze to concentrate birds.

Joshua Beuth is the chairman of Rhode Island’s South Shore chapter and a wildlife biologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. He states that the snow line is still too far north to push geese down in great numbers, but some have arrived in recent days. For those interested in puddle ducks, Beuth reports that black duck numbers are up, but the teal have mostly departed. Local rivers are holding a few remaining wood ducks, but they have mostly headed south for the season.

All of the water has spread the inland dabblers out, but Beuth is optimistic that drier weather will help concentrate puddlers into their old haunts as the season goes on. The coming cold snap will freeze the smaller waters, amplifying that effect. Those on the salt water should look to shallow coves for black ducks, keeping an eye out for marsh shoals that are far enough away from structures to be legally hunted. Brant have arrived in typical numbers in the Mid and Upper Bay, and should provide hunters with plenty of opportunity.

Josh has good news for sea duck hunters, stating that the big ducks have moved in, with several thousand scattered along the coast, including an equal number of scoters and eiders. Black and white-winged scoters make up the bulk of the scoter contingent, with surf scoters yet to arrive en masse. Reports from Cape Cod are positive, showing a large number of sea ducks are staging there, which Beuth believes will ride the next big blow down. Those looking to harvest a trophy eider are in luck, as the birds have mostly finished their molt and are nearing their prime plumage.

These days, Mike Schipritt spends more time daydreaming about hunting while carving decoys than he does out on the Rhode Island’s waters, but he keeps his finger on the pulse of the sea duck migration through his close-knit network of friends. He has it on good authority that the sea ducks are spread from Quonnie Beach to Brenton Point. Schipritt also wants to let hunters know to be on the lookout for harlequin ducks. While not present in Alaskan numbers, the small sea duck is a regular visitor to gunning rigs in Rhode Island’s coastal waters, and they are protected on the East Coast.

Avery/Banded Pro Staffer Bryn Whitmier has seen plenty of geese in Pennsylvania, though getting to them can be tough. With a background in soil science, Bryn remarks that 2018 will end as the wettest year on record, and the local farms are showing it. The abundant mud has made getting into fields difficult, and hunters should use caution to avoid getting stuck. The southeast portion of the state seems to be holding the greatest number of migratory honkers.

Bryn echoes Beuth’s feelings about the upcoming cold snap tightening the ducks up a bit, with high water having spread the ducks out in the Keystone State as well. When the small waters freeze, the ducks will consolidate on the bigger ponds and flowing waters. Just be sure to exercise caution, as local rivers are still at six to eight times their normal levels, with current to match. The frost should also help hunters move in and out of fields without leaving ruts and angering landowners. Whitmier expects that hunting in the Southern James Bay Population Goose Zone should be good once the season opens again next week, following the two-week break for deer gun season.

Jim Feaga, Ducks Unlimited regional biologist for New Jersey and Pennsylvania, has a similar assessment about the abundant water. “Some areas that have been regularly flooded in past years may be experiencing excess water, which renders them too deep for feeding dabbling duck species,” Feaga says. “Overall, there is plenty of habitat around for hunters to access, but that has also spread out the birds.”

Feaga reports that Middle Creek WMA has recently began revamping many of its managed wetlands, which has been timely for this years’ migration. “Many of these wetlands remained stagnant over the last decade or so, but the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) is now replacing infrastructure and managing them more like moist-soil units,” Feaga says. “In fact, DU will be assisting the PGC with another project this summer. It should provide significantly more groceries for the ducks.”

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Joseph J. Albanese is a New York–based freelance writer with a lifelong love of salt marshes and Atlantic Brant. Joseph will be providing habitat and hunting reports for the Atlantic Flyway during the 2018−2019 waterfowl season.