Based on the fall flight forecast, this was supposed to be the best autumn in many for duck hunting. After all, some 105 million birds are expected to migrate south nationwide, the highest number since the forecast began 50 years ago.
However, waterfowl biologists said, unseasonably warm weather has slowed their transit and dry conditions in many areas might cause the birds to alter "traditional migration behavior."
"Many ducks and geese won't move south until cold weather freezes their water sources," said Dr. Bruce Batt, chief biologist for Ducks Unlimited, an international conservation association deeply involved in the creation and restoration of waterfowl habitat.
"This year's persistent warm weather means that many birds are still much farther north than they would be [otherwise] at this time of year."
Additionally, Batt said, in many areas "these record numbers of waterfowl will be flying into some of the poorest habitat we've ever seen."
In Maryland, where the final split of duck season opens tomorrow and runs through Jan. 20, some species of ducks have been plentiful this fall, but hunting conditions have been less than ideal.
Ed Soutiere, manager of Tudor Farms near Cambridge, said the summer drought caused reduced yields in food plots, Hurricane Floyd then inundated much of Maryland, and "now it's dry again and it doesn't look terribly good for getting any water soon."
In the early-season splits, he said, warm, bluebird conditions kept birds "out in the open bay and the open marsh where we don't get a chance to get them."
Larry Hindman, waterfowl project leader for the Department of Natural Resources, said early migrants that moved through "were at some of the highest numbers in years."
"Green-winged teal were dominant through late October into November, and there were good numbers of wood ducks into mid-November," he said. "Up through the second split, I saw real good numbers, especially teal, but also wigeons, gadwalls, mallards and some black ducks."
Still, Hindman said, the numbers of ducks moving into and through Maryland probably should be greater, given the enormous size of the fall flight forecast by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"I think things are a little late in terms of weather," Hindman said. "It's still mild in Minnesota, for example. But other areas of the the upper Midwest are freezing up, and birds are banding in groups of several hundred and getting ready to move."
When the birds do arrive, he said, many are likely to congregate on well-managed impoundments where there is water and a diversity of seed to feed on.
Cold, wet, windy weather, Hindman and Soutiere said, will get the birds up and moving toward sheltered water and abundant feed.
Maryland, with its numerous creeks, rivers, ponds and impoundments and good food sources, probably will hold good numbers of birds once they arrive, Hindman said.
"But so far it has been like every recent year, very mild," said Hindman. "And, if you remember, the Eastern Shore was dry up until early January 1999 and we didn't get many birds hunting until about the last day of the season."
In the Pacific Flyway, Ron Stromstad, director of DU's western region office, said large numbers of birds are still in Alberta and British Columbia, although hundreds of thousands already have moved into Washington, Oregon and California's Central Valley.
"The Skagit River delta along Puget Sound is holding about 360,000 ducks, one of the highest counts on record," Stromstad said. "There are currently 1.6 million birds holed up in the Klamath Basin, compared to only a million at this time last year."
A forecasted series of cold winter storms, he said, was expected to finally kick the hunting season into gear.
Steve Havera, a waterfowl biologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, said recently that he has not seen major winter flights yet, and he is concerned limited shallow-water habitat will cut short their layover in central Illinois.
In the upper plains states, conditions also have been warm and dry.
Craig Jones, a waterfowl guide from Mitchell, S.D., said he hasn't seen a season this warm and dry in 30 years.
"In areas where we would normally have tens of thousands of ducks at this time of year, we are seeing only a few thousand," he said. And in areas where there would normally be hundreds of thousands of geese, "we're seeing only 30,000 to 40,000."
In the Mississippi Delta, one of the most important wintering areas in North America, warm, dry conditions have created poor habitat, which could have repercussions next spring.
"Some studies indicate that the body weight and winter survival rates in mallards and wood ducks is lower in dry winters than in wet winters," said Dr. Rick Kaminski, water fowl ecologist at Mississippi State University. "We don't know, but we suspect these factors could lead to lower reproductive success in the spring."