Erratic weather, a late bird migration, and Super Storm Sandy characterized the 2012-2013 East Coast waterfowl season. For hunters at the right latitude, it was a banner year; while those more south had to work against drought, warm temps and irregular flights.
The season opened with high hopes. Drought had plagued most of the country all summer, and while water levels were low along the Atlantic flyway, it didn’t compare to other regions where water was nonexistent. There seemed to be enough fresh water down most of the Atlantic flyway for migrators to stick around. If anything, the lack of water would help concentrate birds, it was thought. There was plenty of duck food incubating, too, as moist-soil vegetation took hold in dry creek beds and empty backwater beaver ponds. When early fall rains moved through, it was a veritable duck buffet most places north and south.
Yet despite the favorable conditions on the ground, weather was the wild card. And wild it was. An October cold spell pushed mallards in good numbers off Canadian breeding grounds and into upstate New York and northern New England. Around the same time, wood ducks were on the move in huge numbers. In Eastern Connecticut, for the first time any of us could remember, we saw woodies in rafts of 50s and 100s on open water. Geese numbers were also high in those early days for the northern half of the flyway, though the biggest push seemed to come through those first two weeks of November.
The most significant event this season by far occurred in the last week of October: Super Storm Sandy. In a few days time, water levels were back to normal, but not without a cost. Property damages topped $65 billion, and while the birds seemingly got through it ok, the same can’t be said for our east coast refuge systems.
In the days following the storm, 35 National Wildlife Refuges shut down, 25 of which sustained significant damages. (This does not take into account the dozens of state-run refuge systems affected by Sandy.) At some places the damages were near catastrophic. Sandy widened the breach at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge on Delaware Bay, for example, from 300 feet to 1,500 feet. Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, just north of Atlantic City, got particularly pounded.
“The eye of the storm passed right over us,” said Virginia Rettig, the refuge manager at Forsythe. “Interestingly enough, so did Irene last year. We’re becoming ground zero, apparently.”
A 1,200-acre impoundment created in the 1950s at Forsythe to provide freshwater for wintering waterfowl, especially black ducks and brant, took the brunt of the storm.
“When the storm came across, all the winds were from the north and we’re used to that, so all looked good,” Rettig said, “but when the eye crossed and the winds went south – remember we had a high tide, full moon going on – that south wind drove all of that water into the southern end of the impoundment dyke and caused all kinds of problems.”
Saltwater mixed with fresh. Where there should have been one foot of water, there was six. Overnight, thousands of birds took off from the refuge and the region. There were reports of eider in Ohio.
Perhaps most scary, the storm’s full impact has yet to be seen. How it may effect the changing ecology of Barnegat Bay, from water quality to changing tides, won’t be fully known until the spring growing season, when marsh and aquatic grasses come back to life–if they come back to life.
Then there’s the question of debris, which litters beaches from Rhode Island to Long Island, and Jersey down to the Chesapeake. At Forsyth alone there’s a 22-mile debris field. “It looks like boats and roofs and sheds and plastic containers all wound up in marsh grass and sediments,” Rettig said. “In some areas its 10 feet high, some places it washed into the woods 100 feet. I’ve talked to [staffers at] refuges in the south who had similar problems, and in some cases it took several years to clean up.”
As one scientist told me at the time, ducks and geese have been weathering hurricanes for millennia. Here in New England, we had great hunting in the high winds that preceded the storm. Ducks and geese traded around in real numbers. As the storm made landfall in New Jersey, hunters were shooting limits in Maine. Birds that cleared out of the Mid-Atlantic returned in a few days’ time. On the coast, Scoter seemed the most profoundly effected: they migrated early, seemingly ahead of the storm.
Erratic weather characterized November and December for most of the flyway. Hunters in upstate New York and northern New England, who benefited from that early October push, had a first-rate season. Cold weather didn’t arrived until Christmas, so those northern hunters were in ducks nearly all season long, while the rest of us waited on the late migration.
When the cold weather finally did come, birds moved along expected routes. We laid into blacks, buffies and bluebills in Rhode Island the last two weeks of the season. Just now, as the seasons wrapped up in the Chesapeake and Carolinas, hunters reported A+ hunts on divers, seaducks, and geese.
Now all that’s left most places is late goose season,. I’m already working up my off-season to-do list: patching some glass on my layout boat, re-rigging diver decoys, and building a new shore blind. An old friend of mine, Bob Hansen, summed up this mindset best. He was asked what he does once the duck season ends. “Well,” Bob said, “I think about duck hunting.”