A satisfying chill swept New York and northern Pennsylvania last week, exciting duck hunters and lending a sense of urgency to early-migrating waterfowl. The peak of the migration is, of course, some weeks away, but modest numbers of teal, gadwalls, pintails and even wigeon have been spotted on the move as far south as Interstate 80. A couple movements of Canada geese in northern regions of New York are also reported.
However, most birds have simply begun preparations for the journey ahead.
“Locally produced puddle ducks are collecting on wetlands with abundant food resources as they fuel up for the coming migration,” says Ducks Unlimited regional biologist Sarah Fleming. “Some migratory puddle ducks, including northern pintails and green-winged teal, have appeared in northern regions of New York in response to changing daylengths. And we’ve noticed a small number of diving ducks–mostly lesser scaup–headed south a bit earlier than normal.”
Fleming reports that an initial push of bluebills has arrived on Lake Ontario, likely having traveled by the light of the September 29 full moon. The first major surge of divers to Pennsylvania and New York traditionally occurs on the first full moon in October–this year it falls on October 29.
“There are also weather factors involved, but that’s probably when the first serious movements will occur,” Fleming says.
Pennsylvania’s early northern zone season opened last week, and hunters have reported success taking teal, gadwalls, resident mallards and a number of wood ducks. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, given that the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s 2012 survey indicated 30 percent more wood ducks than the long-term average.
Like much of the country, northeast hunters are contending with a severe drought that’s stamped out seasonal wetlands and left many ponds bone dry.
“This means one of two things for the migration,” explains Nick Biasini, a Ducks Unlimited regional biologist. “Either the ducks will pass on through New York and Pennsylvania a lot more quickly than normal, or they’ll migrate at a normal pace while sticking more to larger bodies of water. I think the latter will probably prove the case.”
Biasini advises hunters to look to big water this year, especially rivers, to find ducks.
“Hunters who are hoping for an ideal season should still root for rain,” he says, “But there should be plenty of birds around as long as the rivers don’t freeze early.”
Kyle Wintersteen is a freelance writer who has hunted Atlantic Flyway waterfowl for two decades.