Sunday, January 11, 2009

Curse You, Late Waterfowl Season!

Ahhhh....the Atlantic Flyway. Do you see Maryland? No, you don't, because on the map, Maryland is completely blackened over with ducks. It's more simple than it looks when it comes to waterfowl in the mid-Atlantic - we get Atlantic Population (AP) Canada geese from Quebec, Newfoundland, and Labrador. They used to winter further south, but now (due to changes in farming practices and/or global warming...full post forthcoming), Maryland is as far as they typically go in large numbers. And really, they only go as far as snow cover makes them. Our diving ducks (primarily canvasbacks, scaup, and buffleheads) come diagonally across the continent from the Western Boreal Forest, stopping quickly at the Great Lakes for some food and rest. Remember that. Our primary puddle ducks, which are black ducks, mallards, and a lesser mix of pintail, wigeon, and gadwall, come south from their nesting grounds in the Great Lakes and eastern Canadian Provinces.
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Sounds like an outstanding setup, right? Then why have Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina experienced an insufferable 5 year downward trend in waterfowl harvests?

You can't like your odds when the creeks fill with ice before the ducks arrive.
Patuxent River, January 2009
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The answer, in my opinion, lies at the intersection of waterfowl biology, climate variations, and how waterfowl seasons are set. Let's look at each. Waterfowl, and most birds for that matter, have almost all of their behaviors dictated by two factors: hormones / internal clocks, and energy / calorie conservation. While spring migration is entirely driven by hormones & internal clocks within birds or flocks of birds, fall migration is dictated by a bizarre mix of internal clocks and caloric conservation. Also keep in mind that while the fall migration may take weeks or even months to finish, the spring migration typically takes a week or less to cover the same 2,000 miles or so. For our purposes, let's remember the original question, "Why has the hunting been so awful?" and realize that we're focusing on the fall migration.
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Birds, even resident birds, become quite agitated in September and October and become aware that they must go somewhere. At the same time, many northern areas start to experience frost, snow, and a decline in naturally available bird food (even if you call corn "naturally available", it eventually gets eaten up). So birds fly south. Without getting into a discussion about their bizarre migratory routes, let's just focus on the areas where they stop. In the case of most waterfowl and shorebird species, these stopover locations include the Great Lakes, the Upper Mississippi River, Hudson Bay, Long Island Sound, and the St. Lawrence River. Birds use these areas along their routes to rest, preen, and gorge themselves on carbohydrate-rich foods (or snails in the case of diving ducks and black ducks).

Icy boat on the ramp - Patuxent River January 2009.

And this is truly where all of those factors come together. Ducks settling in these locations do not have to move any farther south unless they either run out of food, or they lose their sources of open water. Remember - the birds know that they must conserve energy all the way through the winter to return north. And there's the rub.

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As we sat, freezing on the Patuxent River (famous for stands of wild rice and nice flocks of teal, black ducks, and mallards) last week and wondered where the hell the ducks were, the ducks were still sitting on open water in the Great Lakes. In January. I saw a Weather Channel update that afternoon - open water on all of the Great Lakes. ALL OF THEM. In January.

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In fact, I hear there's still open water in parts of the St. Lawrence River, and in fact, that's where a few million ducks are sitting right now. Content to hedge their bets that maybe, just maybe, they won't have to fly any farther south.

Hunting in icy conditions presents the spectre of hunting over iced-up decoys - the shimmer in the dawn sunlight off of these icy, plastic beauties will scare ducks away for miles.
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Meanwhile, our most productive winter duck habitats, shallow wetlands and upper tributaries of creeks, are frozen over with thin sheets of ice. This means that if, by some miracle, the Great Lakes do freeze over before the end of hunting season, ducks and geese will bypass the highest quality, and most heavily hunted, habitats for open water on our major rivers, where they'll have little hope of finding high quality food (and where it's very difficult to hunt them). In the last 3 years, our first major flights of ducks have come between January 19 and January 25. What's wrong with that?

Air: 17 degrees, Water, 32 degrees, floating rice seed and no ducks in January
This is where the whole debacle engages with waterfowl management and the setting of duck seasons. The USFWS and Flyway Councils meet to set the Federal Guidelines for Migratory Bird Hunting every July or August. The Council guidelines have three major aims: create bag limits that will not adversely affect bird production in the following summer, provide sustainable hunting opportunities, and prevent "high cost losses" to bird populations, namely, to prevent birds from being killed once they have successfully wintered and are on their return migration north. This is very important to bird conservation and the management of bird forage, or "bird food" across all of the flyways and the continent as a whole.
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As a result, the Feds "recommend" that Atlantic Flyway seasons end by somewhere January 20 and January 27 every year, and our individual states set the waterfowl seasons accordingly (they can go more stringent, but rarely less stringent). That sounds great, but remember that for 5 years, we've received our main flights of waterfowl between January 19 and January 25. At which time, most ponds, wetlands, and creeks have been frozen for about 2 weeks (most years). The result is that out of a generous 60 day waterfowl season, only the last week, at best, is highly productive for most hunters. And although I have no data to support this, I'm pretty confident that most duck hunters have "hung it up" for the winter prior to January 20.
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I don't know where this leaves Maryland waterfowling, but it's not good. More and more hunters are targeting geese, with goose leases ranging from $2,000 to $30,000 per farm. Also not very helpful to "Average Joe Hunter." It's become apparent to my peers and I (hunting biologists) that until this climate trend turns around, which could be next year, or in 10,000 years, Maryland and Virginia are basically DOA for duck hunting. I can hardly imagine it - the cradle of American waterfowling culture....now "goose and sea duck only."
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Looks like we'll be heading north or west by 1500 miles or more next fall.

4 comments:

Live to Hunt.... said...

Great post Swamp, very educational. Interestingly, there are a lot of correlations to the Pacific Flyway. We don't have problems with icing over, but instead we have habitat reduction and urban creep to blame. This year it has been a water and weather issue. We count on Klamath Basin (Oregon) to freeze over and send the ducks south (like your Great Lakes scenario). But this year it is 50 degrees and open water up there. In the last two weeks the refuges have reported that all the ducks that came down with the last (and only) freezing storm have all returned up north. Sigh... So, for some of the same reasons we are in the same proverbial duck boat. Not good, my friend, not good.

D. B. Light said...

Migration patterns are changing in Pennsylvania too. We are seeing a lot more raptors than we did just a decade or so ago. Not just the migrants coming through, but also resident Redtails and TV's. Just last year Hawk Mountain conservatory tracked 7,700 raptors [mostly Broadwings] coming through on one single day.

Swamp Thing said...

Yup. It remains to be seen whether this is a short term (5 to 20 year) trend or part of the ubiquitous global warming...

Matt said...

GLOBAL WARMING IS A MYTH! Get off of ALGORE and into reality.