Burton on the Bay:
Chesapeake's Latest Casualty
Until you have courted bluebills in the snow, you have not tasted the purer delights of waterfowling.
Stories of Old Duck Hunters: Gordon McQuire, Circa 1930s
Among those of Chesapeake Country who hold the hunting of ducks above that of the larger, lumbering Canada goose, the bluebill is a coveted species.
I can't brag that the scaup or bluebill is as much a trophy as the canvasback of the Chesapeake, the most coveted prize of all waterfowl, but it's a close second. It ranks right up there with the redhead, another colorful and challenging migrant bird that frequents our waters.
Endure a blustery, snowy day on open waters of the Bay or nearby marshes when fowl - redheads, canvasbacks and bluebills - are flying and shooting Canada geese pales like duck soup. No comparison - though it seems the younger generations became awed by the size of the honker, and because it's bigger, it has to be better.
Balderdash. It simply ain't so. Nothing wrong with the Canada goose, mind you, but for sheer frustration and satisfaction hunting it can't match hunting most diving ducks on a day when winds howl and skies spit snow and it's downright frigid. A stiff nor'easter can give them a flight pattern that makes a decoying goose appear like a kite if the two are to be compared.
Though they might not like to think so - or admit it if they do think so - goose hunters have it relatively comfy in field pits and blinds, which can't compete for discomfort with the water blinds from which most diving ducks are shot. 'Tis said, the more discomfort the duck hunter endures, the better the hunter he is.
Hard Times Arrive
The bluebill has long been a favorite of those who prefer ducks, diving ducks in particular. It's a fast and evasive target that won't be found in fields where pits are dug and blinds erected. It likes open waters and appears energized by the most foul of weather.
For the past 40 years as canvasbacks and redheads endured problems in their Canadian prairie nesting grounds, bluebills played a more important and popular role among those on the chase for divers. Their nesting success was better, they were more plentiful - and also subject to less stringent regulations.
You might say, bluebills practically became the only game in town among those who wanted diving ducks. But now comes word the picture might not be all rosy for the bluebill, heretofore considered pretty much immune to the woes of the prairie-hatched Cans and redheads.
In North America, we have two species of scaup, the lesser and the greater, with the latter comprising only about 10 percent of the overall population. From a distance, the two appear the same, so much so that when annual surveys are made, they're lumped together. Flying biologists can't distinguish them.
It matters not which is which: the news is equally ominous. Last year's spring survey tallied only 3.5 million bluebills - greaters and lessers together - which represents about a 40 percent decline from the five to eight million estimated via counts from the 1970s into the early '80s. Bluebills, along with pintails, are the only two ducks whose numbers are below figures targeted for the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.
Zebra Mussels Again?
Now we learn that among the suspects is a pesky shellfish that struck fear into the hearts of fishermen of the Northeast and Great Lakes back at the turn of the decade. The zebra mussel.
Remember the zebra mussel scare? It came out of nowhere. The trouble is a small shellfish figured to have taken a foothold when bilge contents were dumped from visiting ships that cruised Eurasia. Among the gunk were enough zebras to establish a population here.
The pesky and prolific creatures pile up and adhere like epoxy glue. Since their documented arrival, they have caused many millions of dollars in annual damages as they clog intake and outake pipes in water supply systems, boat engines and anything else through which infested waters must pass.
This tiny black-and-white striped creature is voracious, feeding extensively on the food supply of resident fish. Its detection - and it has been observed in more than 20 states and in Canada - brought about defensive procedures that remain an inconvenience to many fishermen of the popular Baltimore City reservoirs, especially heavily fished Loch Raven.
To ensure the mussels or their minuscule larvae don't invade their waters, reservoir officials quickly clamped down boating regulations. Boats had to be scrubbed down; boats that used other waters weren't allowed and even bait had to be contaminant-free.
For a time there was concern about the Chesapeake, though zebras are freshwater critters. Reports circulated that they were adaptable to brackish waters and could be edging down the Bay. But fortunately, for the time being at least, there has been no confirmation.
So, you might ask, what has all of this to do with the decline in bluebills of North America? Well, bluebills on their migration routes now prefer the Great Lakes, and they also like to feed on zebra mussels. Good, you might respond, they have to eat - and they're helping to rid waters of these most unwelcome creatures. Ah, if only it were that simple.
You see, zebras filter large volumes of water to obtain their food. Thus all the contaminants they consume become incorporated into their body tissue. Then along come the hungry bluebills who eat the mussels (and bluebills are among the few enemies of the mussel), and those contaminants become incorporated in their bodies.
The role all of this plays in the bluebill dilemma is still obscure, but it is being checked out by waterfowl scientists who know that studies reveal that generally these birds carry higher contaminant loads in their bodies. As Delta Research, located in Manitoba, Canada, reports, "we don't know at what point these chemicals begin to impact survival or reproduction."
Trouble on the Line
Other possibilities are also being checked out. The most significant losses have been observed in the boreal forest in Canada, where long-term climate data indicates that a "hot spot" has developed. As Delta reports "the location of this hot spot has an eerie similarity to the area experiencing major bluebill declines.
"Might global warming be affecting the boreal forest ecosystem in some way we don't yet understand? This idea is difficult to evaluate due to our almost total naiveté about boreal forest ecosystems."
At the moment, there's not much we can do other than support the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to impose more strict bag limits this year. (Marylanders were restricted to four a day last season.) Global warming continues as we ignore it.
Anyway, how are you going to tell a duck what to do?