Waterfowl by the Thousands
by C.D. Dollar
"Heard there were three thousand canvasbacks on Goose Pond," said Bill Street as we both struggled to shake off the effects of declining skills and stiffening joints after a weekly basketball game. Intrigued, I asked him where he heard that and joked as to where they were a month ago when I cared. He told me the source, which I knew to be credible, then immediately agreed to go check them out later that afternoon.
After securing permission from that same credible source to enter the property, Street and I met at a local outdoor store to make the quick jaunt to the farm that borders Goose Pond. Through the trees, we could see a huge knot of waterfowl, collectively moving toward open water. We crept along the shoreline -- the Bay Bridge a steel and concrete behemoth in the background -- and though we tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, clearly the birds were agitated.
As they turned, flashes of brilliant white came off the water, revealing that they were mainly scaup (also called bluebills) and canvasback ducks, two of the elite diver ducks that winter on the Chesapeake.
"Awesome" was said, though by him or me I am not sure.
Street shares my passion for waterfowl, and it fits that he makes restoring their habitat in the Chesapeake watershed his career. Bill is the restoration manager for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which means he spends a lot of time in the field designing and hammering out details of wetland projects. Working with landowners, biologists, soil experts as well as other conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited, Street's goal is to restore much of the habitat we have taken from the birds in past decades.
We had moved into range and were fully loaded, so we ripped off several quick shots in unison.
"What are you shooting?" Street asked, as we moved still closer. "A Canon EOS Rebel, with 200 ISO colorslide film," I answered. "You?"
"Nikon, 400 speed black and white, but I also have a roll of color print film," came the reply.
For the next 10 minutes, we watched in virtual silence, which was broken when we tried to count the ducks in front of us. Being more or less level with the water put us at a disadvantage in trying to conduct an accurate count. Aerial waterfowl surveys - like the Annual Midwinter Survey conducted January 4 to 16 by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Maryland's Department of Natural Resources - are more accurate.
"A friend of mine who was doing an aerial survey of egrets in South America used to practice counting birds by throwing rice on a table in groups of tens," said Street. I didn't know if he was telling a yarn or not, but it sounded reasonable. By my count, I figured there were about 1,200 to 1,500 birds, mostly bluebills but at least several hundred canvasbacks. Scores of bufflehead, sometimes called dippers, hung around the fringe of the flock like a younger brother tagging along but not particularly welcomed.
Overall, waterfowl numbers are up in Maryland. A total of 888,100 birds were counted this year compared to 665,8000 last year. Of the notables, Canada geese increased from 275,100 last year to 396,700 in 1999. Dabbling ducks like mallards and black ducks have also increased, from 40,800 to 48,000 and 20,700 to 30,300. Black ducks, a close relative of mallards, remain a concern for wildlife managers, but these increases are encouraging.
Since the 1950s, black ducks have been hurt by loss of habitat (unlike mallards, they will not breed near human population or activity), hunting pressure and hybridization with mallards. Anecdotally - though I have only kept a log in the few years I have hunted - I have observed and taken more black ducks this year than previous years.
"I've definitely taken more birds this year," said Kevin Colbeck, my frequent hunting partner and area guide. "I attribute that to more birds overall but also to advanced equipment. Though you still got to work to get your ducks on many days."
Estimates for diving ducks increased from 191,100 last year to 229,600, mostly due to the large increases for ruddy ducks (84,000). Canvasbacks increased slightly from 46,800 to 52,600, though scaup numbers went down, from 75,000 last year to 68,300 in 1999.
Colbeck, who has more than 25 years waterfowling experience, said he was amazed at the numbers of Canadas he's seen this year, and not just on their traditional Eastern Shore grounds but in Anne Arundel and Calvert counties as well.
Sound management practices, habitat restoration programs and good breeding conditions are the key ingredients to bringing all species of ducks back to healthy levels. Two of the three we can control. I never have seen the enormous flocks of canvasbacks blot out the sky in the storied days of Chesapeake waterfowling, but I sure hope to in my lifetime.