Shortage of diving ducks on Pamlico raises concerns

Published 11:30 am Monday, January 19, 2015

FRED BONNER | CONTRIBUTED ON THE HUNT: These duck hunters are always hopeful that there will be some diving ducks in the Pamlico river that will be attracted to these decoys. Unfortunately, the diving ducks are in very short supply in the Pamlico River this year.

ON THE HUNT: These duck hunters are always hopeful that there will be some diving ducks in the Pamlico river that will be attracted to these decoys. Unfortunately, the diving ducks are in very short supply in the Pamlico River this year.

I can easily understand why so many duck hunters in North Carolina are getting discouraged with their hunting efforts. Here we are, in the very last days of the 2014-2015 duck hunting season, and many of the reports are that the hunting is not going well.

By all reasoning, the ducks should have been moving into our area by the droves. The bitter cold and snowing climate to our north is bound to be driving the ducks south and into our coastal waters, but until the last few days, the big water ducks like canvasbacks and scaup ducks are just hardly showing up at all in the Pamlico River area.

While talking with the well-known wildlife biologist, coastal zoning guru and waterfowl taxidermist Davis Gossett a few days ago, he suggest that the early waterfowl season here in eastern North Carolina went quite well for duck hunters who hunted in lakes such as Mattamuskeet and on small public, as well as private impoundments to the north of the Pamlico River. There were lots of gadwall and widgeon taken by hunters who told Gossett that they’d taken several limits of these diving ducks. As to the apparent scarcity of diving ducks here in the Pamlico Sound and River, Gossett feels that the lack of food items such as the small Carolina (Rangia spp.) clams in this area has a lot to do with these ducks not being here.

Apparently, there were a lot of diving ducks such as the canvasback and scaup here during the winter following Hurricane Irene. That super abundance of these deep water feeding ducks came about because Hurricane Irene uncovered vast beds of these small clams that ducks favor as their primary food. Since that first season after Irene, the clams have been is short supply and perhaps the diving ducks have been seeking food somewhere other than here in the Pamlico River area.

So, here we are in the last week of duck hunting season and a lot of duck hunters are feeling a little slighted when, yet again, the duck forecasters that have been promising us lots of diving ducks. Where are the ducks?

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been on the lower Pamlico River and South Creek looking for some of the bluebills and canvasbacks that we old timers had become accustomed to seeing in these mid-winter hunting days. I’ve run the river from Blount’s Bay to where the Pamlico River becomes the Pamlico Sound and it’s been depressing. In short, I have not observed a single canvasback and very few small flocks of bluebills. A few Maryland trophy ducks (buffleheads) are to be seen and even the old reliable ruddy ducks usually found up in the shallow creeks seem to be in short supply.

During the winter following our encounter with Hurricane Irene, we were “wrapped up” in massive flocks of both greater and lesser scaup ducks (bluebills) that the waterfowl biologists tell us were feeding on the small Carolina clams that the hurricane had uncovered. Waterfowl hunters were even complaining that their prize stools of bluebill decoys couldn’t compete with the massive rafts of these bluebills. It was the first time that I’ve ever heard the hunters complain about having too many ducks.

Recent reports from Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge were that they had a lot of dabbling ducks on the lake, but did not have any actual numbers from their usual mid-winter waterfowl count. No mention was made about any diving ducks.

For several years now, the duck hunters have been blaming the apparent lack of diving ducks on the shortage of aquatic grasses in our area. Last summer we observed a lot of beds of widgeon grass returning to the Pamlico area and as of last week there was still a fair amount of this important waterfowl food to be seen. In fact, this is what the small flocks of ruddy ducks were feeding on. The widgeon grass beds were not as abundant as they had been, but they seemed to be coming back.

It may be that the diving ducks haven’t migrated down into our area yet, but reports from waterfowl hunters to our north say that they’re seeing shortages too. If the ducks are indeed to the north still, it brings up one of the old favorite gripes of our duck hunters about cutting off the season before the ducks get here. We will not know if this is the case until this year’s season is over.

For many years, the waterfowl hunters in North Carolina have been begging our North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission to keep our hunting season open as long as possible so that we could take advantage of the late migrating waterfowl. It seemed to nearly be standard operating procedure that the birds showed up here after the hunting season was closed.

It was really frustrating to be putting our guns and decoys away and then seeing the ducks come swarming into our waters. Their frustration easily showed up on Craig’s List as numbers of hunters began to sell off their gear because they were so frustrated with the season closing before the bulk of the birds moved into our shooting areas.

Actually, our Wildlife Resources Commission has been fighting for years to get the feds to let us have a later season and the feds haven’t granted it to us. Waterfowl biologists from all across the Atlantic Flyway meet every year and try to set up an acceptable framework to offer to all the states on our flyway. They give us so many hunting days within which the states can have their seasons, but they have to close the seasons by a certain date.

North Carolina has always opted for an early season to give our hunters a few shots at the early migrating birds like the blue wing teal, a few days to hunt during the Thanksgiving Holidays and then an extended waterfowl season that last to the end of the time the Flyway Council sets up as the maximum date for hunting ducks.

I’ve always understood that their reasoning for cutting off the waterfowl season early was because many of the ducks and geese were paired off for the nesting season by this time, and if any one of the breeding pair was killed, then the other party would not nest at all during the nesting season. For years, that was the reasoning that closed the season too early to suit many of our Tar Heel waterfowlers.

Some very well known waterfowl biologists have told me that the old rule of not breaking up a breeding pair of ducks or geese does not hold true. Studies seem to indicate that the birds will successfully chose another mate and go ahead and nest the following spring.

If our North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission agrees with this new idea of not being necessary to protect a breeding pair of waterfowl than maybe if the Atlantic Flyway Council agrees than maybe our late waterfowl season could be extended to last until into early February in future years.