In Spite Of Glowing Forecast, Duck Season Was Disappointing

Published 10:42 am Tuesday, January 21, 2014




By Fred Bonner


For years, waterfowl hunters across North Carolina have begged the federal regulators to give us a later duck and goose season because it seemed that the birds didn’t migrate through our area until after the season went our. Earlier this year, it looked like the brutally cold weather to our north along the Atlantic Flyway was going to cause an early freeze-up and drive a multitude of waterfowl into our warmer climate. Predictions were for a banner year. It simply didn’t happen.

As the 2013-14 waterfowl season closes down, many duck hunters are saying that this was the worst waterfowl season we’ve seen in many years. Speculations are rampant as to what caused this lack of birds migrating to the coast of North Carolina.

It’s for sure that the far northern part of the flyway is frozen up and this should be driving the waterfowl south. It looks like they stopped their migration a little north of the Carolina Coast. Waterfowl hunters from the Delaware, Chesapeake Bay area are reporting large concentrations of scaup ducks, canvasbacks, pintails and widgeon as that section of the Atlantic Flyway seems to have some attraction for the birds. Isolated pockets of ducks were reported on the coast of North Carolina, while South Carolina, Georgia and Florida are saying that they too had very few waterfowl this season.

Waterfowl biologists agree that there are three vital conditions that waterfowl need to have in order to stick around in any one area on their annual migration. Those items are food, water and a place to rest. If any one of these ingredients are missing, the birds will move on until they find an area that offers the best of all three of these ingredients, then stick around there until the urge to make that seasonal migration pushes them to move on.

Many of us remember the year after Hurricane Irene devastated our coast. We were astounded to see the heaviest concentration of bluebills (scaup ducks) that we’d ever seen on the lower Pamlico River. Biologists attributed this huge concentration of ducks to the fact that the hurricane ’s wind and water had exposed a lot of small Carolina clams on the bottom and that the ducks were feeding heavily on this unexpected bonus of food. The birds had good water and adequate food and the hunting and boating pressure was relatively light. Was inadequate food the reason that we saw so few ducks this year?

I doubt that this was it. As usual, I was feeding the ducks shelled corn in front of our house on South Creek and this usually attracts good numbers of ducks, Shelled corn in the water is like addictive drugs to ducks and throughout this year’s season I did not see a single duck feeding on this free food.

Aquatic vegetation, such as widgeon grass, has nearly disappeared in crucial sections of the coast. This is a very important source of natural food for waterfowl. South Creek, near its convergence with the lower Pamlico River, is usually a hot spot for wild ducks and this year I only observed a few ruddy ducks and buffleheads on South Creek. There were a few mornings that gave us a thin skim of ice across the water, but by early afternoon the ice was gone. Good food and water were there, so what was keeping the ducks away?

Hunting pressure is a possible reason that the waterfowl season left a lot to be desired on the lower Pamlico area this year. With the exception of a few waterfowl hunting sections of North Carolina that have restrictions on the number and placing of blinds, our coastal waterfowl hunting remains pretty much unrestricted. Hunters from northern states who visit our state to hunt waterfowl are astounded to see that we have so few restrictions on where we can establish our hunting spots. Layout boats and floating blinds are very common along our coast and much of our waterfront is unregulated as to where you can place bushes, grass and establish a temporary blind.

Years ago, some of the old timers were telling us that running fast speedboats up and down the waterways would make the waterfowl leave. This could be a reason that we had such a bad season this year. We had a lot of relatively fast boats on the water that were fishing all throughout the fall and winter, and this could have upset the waterfowl’s need for having a place to rest. Loud military helicopters and low flying jets from Oceana Naval Air Station and Cherry Point certainly do upset much of our wildlife, as they practice shooting and bombing targets along our coast.

Some along the Albemarle-Pamlico estuarine area have experienced small pockets of waterfowl this season earlier, and this seems to indicate that there were early migrating birds who were just passing through on their way south. This still does not explain why the state reports to our south were so bad this season.

We might never know just why we seemed to have such a bad waterfowl-hunting year. It could very well be a combination of several things.  We just have to hope that next year will be better.