Volume 12, Issue 12 ~ March 18-24, 2004

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Chesapeake Outdoors
by C.D. Dollar

Big Birds Share Our Bay

The pale sun pulled itself just above the treeline and started to eat away the residual chill left from the previous night. Still, the cold air lingered far too long for my taste, like the last hanger-on to leave a good party, no longer entertaining or welcomed.

The slow warmup delayed the activity in the airways above the narrow creek. But within the hour, the flights commenced as scores of birds crisscrossed the horizon in their daily toil.

Perhaps they could’ve used an avian air traffic controller, especially when a mature bald eagle performed a fly-by, unsettling the local fowl. Five or even 10 years ago, the excitement meter might have doubled after seeing this apex predator careening below the treetops.

Yet each year I see more eagles; so many that in some reaches of the Bay, I’d dare say they’re common, a perception backed up by hard science. According to the Chesapeake Bay Program’s annual survey released in January, the bald eagle population in the Chesapeake watershed grew to 760 occupied nests in 2003. This was a 10-percent increase from last year and a tenfold increase since 1977, the first year scientists tracked eagle populations. That year also marked the study’s all-time low of only 74 pairs nesting in the watershed.

The near death knell of eagles and many other fish-eating birds, such as osprey and pelicans, was rung by the pesticide DDT, thankfully banned in 1972. Endangered Species Act protections also aided in the birds’ rebound.

When the large-and-in-charge white-headed bird makes its rounds, most birds fluff up and take notice. The loose knot of widgeon resting in a cove got fluttery in a hurry. But crows are a different sort; and like a marauding biker gang that just rolled into town for Beach Week with too much of the canned beverages coursing through their veins, they act ornery. Summarily, they escorted the eagle out of the creek.

While we’re talking bird numbers, the state’s Department of Natural Resources recently released its 2004 Midwinter Waterfowl Survey, which counted 781,300 waterfowl, a decline of 17,000 from 2003. Officials said fewer flights by federal aircraft caused by budget shortfalls reduced survey coverage this year. Widgeon and other dabbling ducks (mallards, black ducks) increased from 68,400 in 2003. Total diving ducks in the 2004 survey were 188,200, up from 169,900 last winter. Population levels for most diving ducks were similar to those observed last winter, except for canvasbacks, ruddy ducks and scaup. In particular, canvasback numbers are cause for some concern for DNR waterfowl biologist Larry Hindman.

“Canvasbacks have not increased despite a wet cycle and good breeding conditions,” Hindman said. “Most likely this is related to habitat, but diet could also be a factor.”

Hindman told me that recent studies have shown canvasbacks eat a lot of Baltic clams, which don’t contain the same nutritional value as underwater grasses, the duck’s preferred food. But the lack of grasses makes them chose alternative forage, and this may impact canvasbacks’ health and possibly breeding production.

So what brought all these diverse species together on that late winter morning in a prototypical Bay creek? In a word, habitat. The Chesapeake’s myriad streams, rivers and marshes offer ideal bald eagle habitat, and, according to scientists, have the potential to support a large population.

Fish Are Biting
The Susquehanna Flats catch-and-release season opened Monday, but the water is roiled up, dirty and cold. Later this month action should increase, peaking after Easter. In the meantime, outfit your boat and tune up that tackle, or go after some yellow or white perch. Minnows and small spinners work.

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Last updated March 18, 2004 @ 2:00am.