Mixed reports from opening weekend in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont have many speculating a slow start to the Atlantic flyway duck migration. Bird counters in and around the Chesapeake Bay agree, but a cold snap expected to hit the East Coast this weekend could jump-start the season.
Brad Shepard, who lives near Augusta, had a bang-up opening day last week in Maine’s north zone. “Three of us all shot limits and saw 200 to 250 birds – a good mix of mallards and woodies,” he said. “We got seven the next day, a banded woodie, then the last day of early goose season we got five between three of us.” A few miles down in the south zone, it was a different story with heavier hunting pressure and fewer birds.
“Southern Maine I’ve got some mixed reports,” said Kelsey Sullivan, migratory and upland game bird biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “It’s been very mediocre south on Bangor.”
Overall bird production was higher in the northern half of the state, and without weather to push those birds south, they simply haven’t left, Sullivan said. Blue-winged teal are still being sighted and shot in good numbers, but the green-winged teal reports are down. “Usually we see good local production, but we’re not seeing much this year,” Sullivan said.
Reports from Canada also seem to point at a weather-induced duck delay. One hunter on Prince Edward Island bagged widgeon and teal on their opening day. Mallards and black ducks are more typical fare.
“Mallards seem down in our area,” said Avery Pro staffer Russell Brzezinski, who hunts out of southwest Ontario. “That could be why some guys infer a late start. Historically it happens in the second moon phase of October with a good northwest wind. We’ll get deluged with birds.”
Weather–not just this week, or this month, but over the last two years – has been the possible cause for a late start. “Last winter, collectively on the Atlantic flyway, we didn’t have the harsh freeze or cold weather that forces birds south,” said Kurt Anderson, New England Regional Biologist for Ducks Unlimited. “Up on the St. Lawrence in New York, for example, they were flush with birds all winter because it never froze and the ducks never left.”
That mild winter, Anderson said, means breeding conditions kicked off earlier than normal. Coupled with lots of precipitation, a warm spring, and ample food, ducks have had no reason to fly for more than a year now.
“This gets down to the origins of migration,” Anderson said. “Think about it from a duck’s perspective. All the resources you need are in one place, from bugs in the spring to grain and crops in the fall, and your energetic demand is limited, so there’s no stress. You can capitalize on food, you don’t have to work for it, there’s decreased opportunity for predation, so really you have no reason to leave.”
The exception? Wood ducks.
Despite the slow start on big ducks, reports of off-the-chart wood duck reports keep rolling in from across the flyway. Avery Pro Staffer Bryn Witmier was surprised this week when he checked a local central Pennsylvania woodie hole and didn’t see a thing. Walking back to his truck he dipped into an oak stand, near the parking lot. “There they were running around the open woods fighting over acorns,” Witmier said. “There were probably 25 woods ducks picking up acorns, chasing each other, fighting. They didn’t need to fight. It is like walking on marbles, there are that many acorns.”
Heavy weather could get those wood ducks trading spot for spot, and push the bigger ducks out of Canada and northern Maine. The arctic front working east, currently dropping snow over the Dakotas and parts of Minnesota, will be a good start. Temperatures are projected to drop into the 40s on Sunday in most of the New England and Mid-Atlantic states.
“I think we’re going to see a lot of birds moving next week,” Witmier said.