Bird numbers appear stable, DNR says, despite bay counts

Discrepancies in waterfowl survey attributed to warmer weather

April 07, 2006|By RONA KOBELL | RONA KOBELL,SUN REPORTER

Despite a survey finding 30 percent fewer waterfowl on the Chesapeake Bay this winter than a year earlier, state Department of Natural Resources officials say Maryland's bird populations appear to be fairly stable and that warmer-than-usual weather allowed geese and ducks to remain out of the view of counters.

DNR's midwinter Waterfowl Survey - an annual count of ducks and geese in the Chesapeake Bay - counted 577,000 birds this past winter, compared with 889,000 in 2005. Survey teams from DNR and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service conducted the survey from Jan. 4-13.

Project manager Larry Hindman said the unseasonably mild weather meant that the birds were more dispersed and harder to count.

Typically, the inland ponds and reservoirs freeze over, forcing the waterfowl into the open-water areas of the Chesapeake Bay, where the researchers can easily count them. But January was one of the warmest on record, and the birds were able to graze inland and didn't go to the shore as frequently, Hindman said.

"I don't think it's due to the fact that there are fewer waterfowl. It's due to the weather," he said. "They were just widely scattered and not concentrated."

The survey found decreases in all populations of ducks and geese. Researchers counted less than half as many diving ducks as they did in 2005, when the population was a little more than 300,000. Dabbling ducks dropped to 50,300 from 82,800 in 2005, and mallards dropped to 32,500 from 52,000 in 2005.

The Canada goose count dropped 20 percent this year, but Hindman said their numbers might be greater than they were in 2005 and 2004, which were cold years.

Aerial restrictions along the Potomac and Patuxent rivers, and around Aberdeen Proving Ground, limited the survey's coverage this year. And Hindman said many of the birds that usually winter in Maryland never arrived because of unusually mild weather to the north.

Perry Plumart, director of conservation advocacy at the American Bird Conservancy, said counting waterfowl year to year doesn't reveal much about the populations but tells a lot about climate change.

"I think global warming is here," he said, "and one of the ways you're seeing it is the behavior of birds in general, including waterfowl."

rona.kobell@baltsun.com

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