Hurricane Sandy: Bad for Public, But Could Be Very Good for Duck Hunting

All eyes are on Hurricane Sandy, which is on track to hit the U.S. East Coast. Meteorologists have put south Florida on alert and issued an "area of concern" warning for the Northeast U.S., from the Norfolk area to Maine.

Sandy is tracking right into the teeth of a major winter storm developing in the West and strong Arctic winds moving in from the North. Some are comparing this three-tiered attack to "the so-called Perfect Storm that struck off the coast of New England in 1991," the AP reported Thursday. Before then, the storm will impact Florida and deliver some much-needed rain to the Southeast this weekend. But it has the potential to slam the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic with gale-force winds, heavy rain, potential flooding and even snow.

"It might be bad for society, but it could be a good time to be a duck hunter," said Avery Pro Staffer Arliss Reed.

Reed and his friend Mathew Shawl put together a good hunt last weekend by playing the weather. The Albany, New York area has had the same dry summer and fall that most of the flyway is experiencing. So far this year ducks have concentrated in high numbers around available water. But with the stout rains that fell over much of the flyway earlier this week, Reed and Shawl changed plans. They scouted for sheet water on cornfields and other flash wetlands. Shawl's yellow lab Autumn got a workout Saturday when the plan came together, as you can see in the photo here. Their harvest was one bird shy of a limit, including a nice banded mallard. Success hinged on last minute scouting for new water. "We found a little wetland pond holding 75 mallards and moved in," Reed said.

If the hybrid storm opens new water holes in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, that same strategy could help duck hunters after the storm subsides: speed scout for those little pockets, then setup fast.

But how exactly this weather could effect duck movement is still anyone's guess. Cold air from the north combined with warm air from the south happens so infrequently, there's little science on how the birds will respond.

When cooler temperatures from the North lock out habitat and food supplies run low, that's when ducks move South, but it takes some time, said Sarah Fleming, the Ducks Unlimited regional biologist for New York State. "They will stick it out during cold temps, so long as they can comfortably roost and can conserve energy resources."

Wood ducks and blue wings could take off from northern locales with the pending weather, Fleming said, most of which are already on the move anyway, heading past the Mid-Atlantic into the South with recent freezing or close-to-freezing nights in the Northeast. Hardier birds, such as mallards and black ducks, could hunker down and try to maintain energy for the duration of the storm, she said.

"We haven't seen a large push of birds moving south yet," Fleming said, "so if anything this weather will just have effects on local populations, because the [duck] migrators just aren't out of their northern breeding grounds yet."

Birds could move inland, away from the storm's path, Fleming said, but it's unlikely to see a major shift unless storm conditions stretch from days into weeks, which no one is forecasting.

"We know from the birding community that rare birds show up before and after hurricanes," said Joe Benedict, waterfowl and small game program leader with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. " We know obviously that cold winds and weather push ducks south. But with a strong, warm, south wind pushing air into the equation, it's anyone's guess."

As wind direction shifts when a hurricane moves over an area, Benedict speculated that some birds could sit tight until the storm moves over them, then ride the resulting north wind south. "It's an interesting question to ponder," he said.

The most likely scenario could be a flyway-wide shutdown with little bird movement until the storm subsides.

"When it's all said and done," said Nick Biasini, DU's regional biologist for New Jersey and Pennsylvania, "if there's more water in different spots, that will move the birds around and be a good thing for hunters."