Record fall duck flight predicted for U.S.


November 17, 1996|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

As we sat along the marshy banks of a tidal creek in the early morning last Thursday, my companion was experiencing his first snowfall. The business at hand was supposed to be a lesson about ducks, but the 7-month-old black Labrador had his mind on snowflakes.

As Trapper sat on his haunches, he watched the flakes fall, occasionally nipping at the larger ones within reach of his snout. Then, tired of that game after a few minutes, he stretched out with his snout between his forepaws and rolled out his tongue, catching snowflakes and, so to speak, drinking in the morning.

A noisy quartet of mallards slid into the creek 30 yards to the east and paddled into the lee of the marsh, where the wind was light and the water shallow.

Trapper noticed, his ears cocking at the sounds of them, eyes following them, nose quivering, haunches stiffening -- and his tongue rolled out, still drinking in the morning.

But what did he care, anyway, about predictions of the largest fall flight of ducks in 26 years and a cold snap that meant promise for the opening of the second split of duck season on Monday?

Over the past week, more and more ducks had been pitching into the creek and gathering off its mouth, as cold weather across the northeast was finally bringing them south -- and one had to wonder whether they were the harbingers.

Waterfowl biologists have been trumpeting this as the best fall flight on record for the continent, with Ducks Unlimited predicting a migration approaching 89.5 million, 16 percent more than the estimate of 77 million last year.

"This will be the highest recorded fall flight since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began calcu- lating the size of duck populations in 1970," said Alan Wentz, group manager of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited.

"This marks the third consecutive season in which duck numbers have rebounded from the drought of the late 1980s and early 1990s."

Areas of the country have benefited from excellent breeding conditions in the prairie pothole regions of the Dakotas and central and western Canada.

But according to William Harvey, Maryland's Waterfowl Project leader, Maryland probably will not benefit as much as the Central and Mississippi flyways.

"Even with all that great talk about nesting success in the pothole areas of mid-continent, you have to know that only some of those species come east," Harvey said Friday. " Even most of the mallards we kill here come from eastern Canada."

And in eastern Canada again this spring and summer, he said, breeding conditions were poor -- for ducks and Canada geese.

"The ducks that nest in eastern Canada -- mallards and green-winged teal, for example -- nest much farther south than our geese, which are 500 to 600 miles farther north," said Harvey. "But in general it was a late spring where ducks nest and especially where the geese nest."

And once the north country did warm up, it stayed warm through early fall and kept the birds in the north longer than usual.

"During our early season, there seemed to be less birds than average," said Harvey, "But in the last couple of weeks, the birds have been coming in, as the weather in Quebec and north of us has gotten colder."

One of Harvey's measuring sticks is duck activity around Deale Island, where, he said, "there are only an average number of ducks around now."

But, he said, as the weather becomes colder, he expects more ducks to move south and a better than average year for duck hunting.

Canada geese, on the other hand, had another bad nesting year, even though the moratorium on hunting migratory Canada geese throughout the flyway and Quebec had a positive effect.

The closure on migratory Canada geese continues this year and could be extended, Harvey said.

At the summer meeting of the Atlantic Flyway Council, Harvey said, a recovery plan was decided upon. When the parameters of that plan are met, he said, then reopening the hunting season will be considered.

"The level at which that will be considered," Harvey said, "is when the breeding population reaches 60,000 pairs with good reproduction."

This past summer, the number of breeding pairs has risen from some 29,000 the previous year to 46,000 -- but nesting success was negligible, Harvey said.

"Still, to me it was encouraging to have the numbers of pairs increase," said Harvey, who has flown the aerial surveys of the breeding grounds for the past several years. "All across the peninsula numbers were up, and the numbers reflect reality."

The increase in the number of nesting pairs can be attributed to the closure of hunting, Harvey said, because far greater numbers of birds will grow to breeding age.

"Now we need one, two, three years of optimal nesting conditions," he said.

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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