Chesapeake Outdoors by C. D. Dollar
In Counting Winter Waterfowl, As in Hunting,
Its Catch As Catch Can
Large pools of water had swollen the field of winter wheat like a great green sponge, overwhelming the drainage ditches feeding Greenwood Creek, a fingerling of the Wye River. Scores of mallards, backsides tipped skyward, rummaged in the pools for sustenance alongside the last squadrons of Canada geese refueling before heading north for their breeding grounds on the Ungava Peninsula.
This past seasons liquid winter erased the prolonged drought that hung over Chesapeake Country the past several years. In recent weeks, most farm fields in our area resembled in miniature the venerable Pot Hole Prairies of Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota and the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Most of the ducks that winter in the Chesapeake region come from these menageries of agricultural wetlands and native prairies.
The ecological benefits of these waterlogged depressions where birds find food and rest not withstanding, I saw a different scenario. I wasnt thinking about ecosystems as wave after wave of birds landed in the potholes. I imagined myself hidden amongst them, primed to take them either by camera or shotgun.
The thousands of Canadas that have been my neighbors for the past five months were among the estimated 452,900 geese that wintered over in Marylands part of the Bay. This is a slight increase from last winter, when the count revealed 426,900 geese, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources 2003 Midwinter Waterfowl Survey.
Overall, state biologists counted 798,000 waterfowl this year, down from 919,000 birds in 2002. The dip of nearly 200,000 birds was due to the weathers effect on migration and habitat conditions, according to the survey.
Dabbling ducks, including mallards and black ducks, were estimated at 68,400 compared to 68,800 in 2002. An encouraging trend was seen in black ducks, a species whose status remains a concern to waterfowl managers. It remained unchanged from last year at around 22,500 birds in 2003.
Diving duck numbers, however, plunged from 310,000 in 2002 to 169,900 in 2003. Declines in ruddy ducks and scaup were the drivers here. Canvasbacks, however, in a year of no hunting pressure, increased from 32,900 to 40,000.
One thing that did strike me as odd was the low number of widgeon recorded. Last year, nearly 3,000 baldpates were observed, but only 800 birds were counted this season. In the areas I hunted, I saw plenty of widgeon, as many as half that in a single day. Curious about this apparent disparity, I called Larry Hindman, DNRs waterfowl guru, to get his perspective.
Remember that this aerial survey is a snapshot. But two things might have contributed to the low number of sightings, Hindman said. Number one, it was a much colder fall and winter than the previous year. Number two, the wet winter filled up the basins and impoundments, which may have spread out the birds. They also could have been in Virginia when we flew the survey.
Fish Are Biting
The watchword of the week: unfishable. Pounding rain, even some snow, has hampered the Susquehanna Flats season and other angling pursuits. Catch and release of stripers at power plants is reported to be fair. The white perch run is winding down, as the watch for shad (American and hickory) increases along many rivers.