Week 19. Ducks Unlimited: 80 Years of Conservation
The Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries have been the winter home for millions of waterfowl for centuries. The birds used to be so thick in places like the Susquehanna Flats that they would literally cloud the sky, and the records of gun clubs and the books of market gunners from a hundred years ago show that it wasn’t uncommon to harvest hundreds of birds per day in a single creek or cove. The birds seemed limitless.
Every hunter today knows that we can’t take any ducks or geese for granted any more, and that waterfowl populations will only stay plentiful through vigilant conservation. Ducks Unlimited has been at the forefront of conserving, restoring, and managing wetlands across North America for decades. Their work is especially important here in the Chesapeake region, which is the winter home to nearly 95% of canvasbacks, half of redheads, and over three-quarters of Canadas in the Atlantic Flyway, according to mid-winter surveys.
DU not only does hunters a service through its conservation work, but its staff is also a virtual almanac of waterfowl and their migration habits. If a big part of hunting is giving yourself opportunities and being in the right place at the right time, then it pays to talk to a DU biologist.
I caught up with DU’s Maryland state Chairman Mike Myers who put me in touch with DU Regional Biologist Jake McPherson. Jake was kind enough to share some of his research as both a hunter and a biologist about the migratory patterns of our waterfowl. Below are my questions in bold, followed by his answers.
What is Ducks Unlimited’s mission overall and also here in Maryland?
Ducks Unlimited conserves, restores, and manages wetlands and associated habitats for North America's waterfowl. Our vision is wetlands sufficient to fill the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow and forever.
Habitats in Maryland primarily serve the needs of migrating and wintering waterfowl, so DU’s programs here address the needs of those habitats. Those include enhancement and management of existing wetlands, development of new wetlands, and protection of coastal marshes and other key habitats. In addition to providing direct habitat, all of these actions contribute to improving water quality, and regeneration of submerged aquatic vegetation and shellfish beds, among other environmental improvements.
You noted that Maryland is the wintering ground for so many species of waterfowl. What is the seasonal migration pattern of some of those species?
It really hinges largely on weather and many other factors. Some species have very well defined migration chronologies and can be relied upon to migrate at a specific time each year with relative certainty. These species could be responding to cues such as length of daylight or another factor that is relatively constant between years. Others tend to rely on climatic and other cues like weather, ice, storms, food availability, etc… to determine when to migrate, and their migration chronology is less defined and/or shifts from year to year.
But as a general rule, dabbling duck species tend to migrate earlier than diver duck species, likely due to their corresponding habitat preference. For instance, dabblers utilizing shallow wetlands and ag fields may be pushed from breeding and northern staging areas by cold weather or snow that freezes shallow wetlands or covers agricultural food sources.
Diver duck habitats -- essentially large open bodies of water -- do not freeze until extended periods of cold weather and therefore these ducks are not forced to leave areas up north as early so long as food remains available.
I don’t have data supporting this and have not searched peer reviewed articles, but it’s been my observation that sea ducks begin showing up in the bay in mid-late November each year regardless of weather.
As field feeders, Canada geese respond heavily to snow cover. As ag-centric areas to our north begin to be covered with snow, you can typically rely on new waves of geese showing up.
What are some cues to watch for early in the season for the migration to begin?
Some of the most common indicators I use when considering migration events is temperature, snow cover, and freezing of large water bodies like the Great Lakes, NY Finger Lakes, etc… north of us. Generally speaking, a north wind of any variant or a cold front affecting northern climes has association with migration events.
What are some of the best hunting regions within the state for different species?
I’m going to refrain from providing specific “best of each region” assessments in order to avoid the risk of your readers starting a shouting match about how great hunting is in Easton vs. Chestertown!
But consider that habitats in Maryland are very diverse and the landscapes in different parts of the state are characterized by different features. These landscape features are directly correlated with the types of waterfowl utilizing a given area.
Dabblers utilize shallow marshes and near-shore emergent and forested wetlands. Anywhere there are concentrations of these habitats is where you’ll find dabblers.
Divers utilize larger water bodies and feed on a varying assortment of vegetation, fish, and aquatic invertebrates. Anywhere these abound, then divers are sure to be there. Of particular importance to divers that specialize in plant material are submerged aquatic vegetation, of which there are several species spanning the bay.
Sea ducks feed on various mollusks and other invertebrates and these ducks are closely linked with the occurrence of oyster beds. As such, sea ducks can generally be found in areas with established oyster beds.
Geese utilize wetlands, ponds, tidal marshes, and agricultural lands. Where these habitats are found in concentration and in close juxtaposition to one-another, you will find higher concentrations of geese.
What species are thriving in Maryland, and which are of concern?
Generally speaking, migratory waterfowl population trends are considered at an international level due to their migratory nature and it would therefore be less than informative to reference the status of a given species population in Maryland alone.
That being said, species that are currently experiencing decreasing population trends or that are stable at levels well below historical levels include the American black duck, Northern pintail, lesser scaup, and sea ducks. Each of these species have different habitat requirements and experience different pressures at various stages of their annual lifecycle that must be considered in order to understand what needs to be done in order to reverse these declining population trends. In other words, the cause for a species population trend may be the result of factors in the breeding grounds, migration grounds, wintering grounds, or often a combination thereof.
Lastly, what are some particularly memorable hunts recently?
At the risk of sounding cliché, I truly do enjoy every hunt that I go on as much as the last! Every hunt offers something different and it would be hard for me to say that a given duck hunt was more memorable than a given goose hunt or vice versa.
With that said, I have a particular affinity for hunting the Susquehanna Flats. A hunt on the Susquehanna Flats is steeped in Chesapeake waterfowling culture and history. Before moving to Maryland, this was only something that I had read about and now that I’m local, I go whenever I get the chance. To add to the appeal, with the exception of maybe Atlantic brant and wood duck, you can harvest just about any and every waterfowl species that migrates through Maryland in this single location.