Migration Alert: Southeast Hunters Benefit from Cold Weather

Jan. 20, 2023 – Atlantic Flyway – North Carolina and Florida

© Michael Furtman

As seasons surge to a conclusion, it seems apparent that the southern edge of the Atlantic Flyway benefited from the prolonged wave of frigid air and freezing temperatures that chilled the Mid-Atlantic region over the Christmas holiday.

Doug Howell, migratory game bird coordinator for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, says hunters in the Tarheel State report action slowing to a crawl. “We lost ducks, particularly puddle ducks, after the big freeze around Christmas,” he explains. “Or maybe the warm weather has them stationary now. Duck hunting in North Carolina hasn’t been great over the last few weeks.”

One positive is that beaver ponds and forested wetlands have more water in them now than in November, Howell notes, with hunters reporting wood ducks have responded and success has been better. 

Howell says good numbers of tundra swans are using North Carolina fields and snow geese have arrived but remain in big flocks rather than dispersed in agricultural fields. Canada goose hunting, mostly for resident birds, is good, Howell says, noting very few migrant Canadas are in North Carolina.

Still, divers and pintails seem to have poured into the major refuges along the North Carolina coast. Brian Van Druten, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Alligator River and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuges, says teams finished ground surveys on the refuges during the first week of January.

Water levels were good at Alligator River NWR despite scarce recent rains. Van Druten reports that more than 6,000 northern pintails were counted, along with more than 2,400 tundra swans. About 1,000 green-winged teal were estimated to be hanging around. Other waterfowl species are sparse. The count tallied just over 100 mallards, American black ducks, gadwalls, northern shovelers and ringnecks.

At Pea Island NWR, just shy of 12,000 redheads were observed with the vast majority using South Pond, according to Van Druten. “There were also over 2,000 ruddy ducks, just under 1,100 buffleheads, and just over 300 lesser scaup. We also had a season high of canvasbacks,” he reports.

In Florida, though, the number of migrating birds has steadily trended up. Social media forums are full of reports of full straps with mixed bags of birds.

Andrew Fanning, the Florida Wildlife Commission’s waterfowl and small game management program coordinator, reports, “This has been a good year so far with many ducks showing up earlier and in larger numbers than usual.

“Central Florida had a variety of puddle ducks, with unusually high numbers of wigeon and pintails early on, and divers such as canvasbacks and redheads,” Fanning says.

The commission tracks the number of ducks taken at the T.M. Goodwin Wildlife Management Area, located near Fellsmere, on the east side of the St. Johns River in southern Brevard County. The diversity there has been astounding, with 18 different waterfowl species collected this season.

“A lot of central Florida birds have pushed south with the last few cold fronts, resulting in an increased harvest opportunity in south Florida,” Fanning adds. Currently, in north and central Florida, numbers are mostly dominated by ringnecks and blue-winged teal, a scenario Fanning calls the “status quo.” Elsewhere, anecdotal reports are coming in of good numbers of scaup and scoters on the Indian River Lagoon in east-central Florida as well as a decent number of buffleheads on the west coast of the Crystal River area, Fanning says.