Migration Alert: Southern Portions of Atlantic Flyway Habitat Primed for Migration

Sept. 26, 2019 – South Atlantic Flyway Preview

© Michael Furtman

Waterfowl habitat conditions and nesting success for resident birds are being reported as generally favorable across much of the South Atlantic Flyway. The biggest variable, and a common refrain, is whether areas to the north will get sufficiently cold weather to give birds the nudge they need to wing their way toward the Delmarva Peninsula, the Carolinas, and beyond. 

Here is a quick look at regional conditions. 

Jake McPherson, Ducks Unlimited regional biologist for Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia, explains that last year’s record precipitation in the mid-Atlantic, followed by a very wet spring this year, had competing impacts on waterfowl habitat. 

“While the wet spring was good for birds on their northward migration and for early establishment of moist-soil plants good for all waterfowl, the rains also had a negative effect on agricultural crop production in some areas. Such crops are important food sources for geese and some dabbling duck species,” McPherson says.         

Excessive rain is usually bad for submersed aquatic vegetation (SAV) in and around the Chesapeake Bay, but McPherson says the 2018 annual SAV survey showed near-record levels. “This bodes well for wintering ducks,” he notes, “but we may see a decline in SAV in 2019 because of another wet spring.” The 2019 survey results won’t be out until later this year.         

In Virginia, Gary Costanzo reports that habitat conditions are “generally good.” Costanzo is the coordinator of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Migratory Bird Program.         

Virginia’s SAV levels, though, are mixed. “Some key areas are down, including around Back Bay, mainly because of the persistent freshwater from rainfall and the turbidity,” Costanzo notes. “Some of the grass beds in the Chesapeake Bay are doing well, such as around Tangier Island, but we’ve gotten mixed results on the tidal rivers and creeks.”         

A wet spring in the Delmarva Peninsula has been followed by a mostly dry summer, except for Hurricane Dorian in early September.         

McPherson reports that dry summers can expose soil in shallow wetlands, possibly increasing waterfowl food plants. “But,” he adds, “if rains don’t start soon, many wetlands that rely on rainwater to replenish water levels may still be dry when waterfowl arrive.” He also notes that the dry summer let habitat managers enjoy an extended construction season. “This enabled us to get tons of wetland restoration projects done this year,” he says. “I take comfort in the positive habitat and populations status info that’s come out this year and wait with crossed fingers to see firsthand how the mid-Atlantic waterfowl season works out.”         

On the duck production front, Josh Homyack, manager of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Waterfowl Project, reports that the preseason wood duck banding efforts seem to be indicating average to above-average wood duck reproduction for this year. “In general, Maryland had a lot of rain early in the spring so that should have made for good nesting habitat for woodies,” he says. “It got pretty dry through most areas during mid- to late summer, so brood-rearing habitat may have disappeared pretty quickly as things dried out.”         

Costanzo explains that Virginia also had good production of local birds, especially Canada geese and wood ducks. “We have been banding a lot of wood ducks and trapping a lot of young birds,” he says. Overall, Costanzo expects Virginia waterfowl hunters to see an average year, at least in terms of puddle ducks. “Hopefully, we’ll get some weather and pushes of dabblers,” he adds.         

Farther south, in the Carolinas, Hurricane Dorian raged through the Outer Banks, delivering high winds and abundant rain and storm surge to Alligator River and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuges. Reports from the refuges near the North Carolina coastline talk of considerable downed trees and limbs, but recovery efforts have been steady. Fortunately, several waterfowl hunters are reporting good numbers of wood ducks and sound habitat conditions farther inland.       

Molly Kneece, South Carolina wildlife biologist with the Upper Coastal Waterfowl Project, says habitat conditions in the Palmetto State are good overall for the upcoming season.         

“An extremely wet June and a dry July made it challenging to grow agricultural crops in moist-soil impoundments in most coastal areas,” Kneece says. “However, the natural vegetation in these coastal impoundments still flourished.”Brackish marshes have produced excellent crops of wigeon grass and were minimally impacted by Hurricane Dorian. Blue-winged teal are starting to show up in decent numbers and resident mottled ducks are abundant as well.         

“Inland areas have produced excellent crops of planted millet, rice, sorghum, and chufa. The wet spring delayed planting of corn in a handful of areas, but those crops did well and are also providing great stands of natural millet and sedge,” Kneece says. “The table is set for waterfowl season across the state; just add water. The winter weather is our only wildcard at this point in the game.”         

Greg Balkcom, waterfowl biologist for Georgia’s Wildlife Resources Division, also touts spring wood duck production in the Peach State. “No numbers yet, but we caught and banded good numbers of wood ducks with what seemed like several hatch-year birds,” he says. 

As in other parts of the South Atlantic Flyway, Balkcom says Georgia’s impoundments got off to a good start this spring with “lots of growth of good vegetation.” He worries, though, about the recent dryness: “I hope that doesn’t impact seed production. Lake levels and reservoir levels are dropping as well, which may impact waterfowl use of the shallow areas around the lake edges. Overall, I think our current habitat conditions are about average.”