Preliminary statistics indicate a 30 percent increase in wintering Canada geese in Maryland, so now it's time to look to the Far North. It holds the crucial key to future honker regulations.
The survey completed last week indicated we had 332,000 wintering Canadas as compared with 251,000 a year ago, but Department of Natural Resources waterfowl chief Larry Hindman stresses these figures are preliminary though probably accurate.
Hindman is playing it conservative because a review of survey results turned up a significant difference in scaup numbers -- and he doesn't want premature optimism, though he isn't looking for much of a difference in the final goose count.
So much for the good news. By March most of these honkers will head to the Ungava Peninsula in northeastern Quebec where they will set up shop for nesting. Realistically, nothing -- including dramatically increased wintering numbers -- is more important in deciding regulations than hatching success, which, in recent summers, has been unusually poor.
Moreover, the wintering flock increase of more than 75,000 birds falls far short of the big years of the mid-1970s when 650,000 were counted.
"Cautiously optimistic," is the way assistant DNR secretary Don MacLauchlan sums it up. "We're pleased. It beats having a decrease, and it's the first of a series of events heading in the right direction. But we've got a long way to go."
Previously, MacLauchlan and Hindman cautioned hunters that it could take several years of improvement to turn things around to bring back good shooting. "The sacrifices of hunters, outfitters, guides and others catering to waterfowl associated with the resource seems to be paying off," added MacLauchlan.
He also attributed the apparent turnabout to improved habitat, and a program initiated by State Sen. Fred Malkus of the lower Eastern Shore to compensate farmers for creating waterfowl sanctuaries and leaving standing corn for fowl.
Another plus for geese heading north this year -- and for hunters in the future -- is a large percentage of older fowl. Middle-aged honkers are the most successful in turning out broods and nurturing them to flight.
In addition, there are indications that hunter success in the past season was down appreciably, which, of course, means more geese to head north. A picking house survey indicated the number of birds plucked was off 50 percent from the previous season.
A Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage survey indicated that kill figures there were less than one young goose for every adult in the past season. That could be why shooters had difficulty in calling birds within range. Older honkers are more wary.
In a good production year, waterfowl managers look to a pair of Canadas to rear four young to flight stage. "Recently," said Hindman, "we have been down to two -- if that."
There should be a minimum of flak about the accuracy of fall and winter surveys because in addition to DNR personnel, representatives of Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage, the Cambridge-based Grand National, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and the federal Migratory Bird Center assisted in the counts. Previously, the Grand National was critical of DNR survey results.
There is good news on the duck front also. Mallards were up to 49,000 from 41,200; black ducks, to 22,300 from 15,800; scaup to 100,000 from 26,500 -- though they were concentrated in large bunches at the Hart and Miller Island area, lower Patuxent, Kent Island Shore and the Queenstown-Tilghman Creek sector. The weather, apparently, wasn't bad enough to break up the flocks to enhance hunting.
Buffleheads, ruddies, sea ducks, goldeneyes and redheads were up appreciably; canvasbacks, down, so were brant. Snow geese numbered 78,300 as compared with 11,200 last year when snow obscured counts of these white birds.