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Bay Blog: waterfowl


More wintering waterfowl observed in Maryland in 2017

Hundreds of canvasback ducks flock on the open waters of the Chesapeake Bay at Jonas Green Park in Annapolis, Marylandd, on February 26, 2015.

Cold weather in early December may have driven more waterfowl to migrate to Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay shoreline and Atlantic coast, according to the results of Maryland’s 2017 Midwinter Waterfowl Survey. Experts from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) counted more ducks, geese and swans in their aerial surveys than in 2016, resulting in a nearly 23 percent increase in the results of the annual survey.

An early-December cold snap throughout the eastern United States spurred the migration of waterfowl to the Chesapeake region, according to a DNR release, resulting in an overall count of 812,600 birds—higher than last year’s 663,000 and slightly above the five year average of 795,240.

This year’s total included 87,900 dabbling ducks (an increase from 69,800 in 2016) and 283,600 diving ducks (up from 246,000 in 2016). The increase in diving ducks can be attributed to teams observing more scaup and canvasbacks. Survey teams also observed more Canada geese than in 2016: 394,700 birds, a 34 percent increase from the previous year.

Marshes, mud flats and shorelines—which offer plenty of fish, underwater grasses and aquatic invertebrates to feast on—make the Bay region a perfect winter stopover for migrating waterfowl. Tracking the abundance of species like the American black duck helps scientists assess habitat health and food availability to support both migrating and resident waterfowl populations.

The USFWS Division of Migratory Bird Management combines these survey results with those from other states to get a sense of the distribution and population size of waterfowl wintering along the Atlantic Flyway, the migration route that follows the Atlantic coast of North America.

Learn more about the results of the Midwinter Waterfowl Survey.


Photo of the Week: Competition celebrates skills of canine companions

Apollo, an English Labrador owned by Michael Stellabotte of Annapolis, Maryland, makes a jump of 19 feet during the Dock Dogs competition at the annual Waterfowl Festival in Easton, Maryland.

Domesticated dogs—particularly retriever breeds—have a long history in the Chesapeake Bay region. The Chesapeake Bay Retriever, often called a “Chessie,” can trace its history in the area back to 1807, when two Newfoundland puppies named Sailor and Canton were rescued from a sinking ship off the coast of Maryland. Each dog was given to a separate owner, where they were bred with area dogs for their sturdy build, endurance and agility.

Bred to be working dogs, Chessies are particularly helpful to waterfowl hunters, as they will happily brave ice-cold waters to retrieve ducks, geese and other birds. As part of the Atlantic Flyway, the Chesapeake Bay region sees millions of migratory birds pass through during their seasonal flights, making the region a haven for hunters. Events like the Waterfowl Festival and Dock Dogs competitions celebrate the skills and intelligence of the four-legged friends who travel alongside them.

Learn more about the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, or about types of waterfowl that visit the Bay region.


Image by Will Parson

Stephanie Smith's avatar
About Stephanie Smith - Stephanie is the Web Content Manager at the Chesapeake Bay Program. A native of the Midwest, she received her Bachelor’s in Professional Writing from Purdue University and Master of Science degree from the University of Michigan. Stephanie’s lifelong love of nature motivates her to explore solutions to environmental problems and teach others what they can do to help.


Maryland’s wintering waterfowl population down slightly in 2016

Warm weather may have delayed waterfowl migrations to Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay shoreline and Atlantic coast, according to the results of Maryland’s 2016 Midwinter Waterfowl Survey. While experts from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) counted more diving ducks in their aerial surveys than in 2015, fewer dabbling ducks, geese and swans were observed.

According to a DNR release, abnormally warm weather in the eastern United States delayed the migration of waterfowl to the Chesapeake region, resulting in an overall waterfowl count of 663,000—lower than last year’s 855,000 birds and below the five year average of 759,460.

This year’s total included 69,800 dabbling ducks (a decrease from 90,800 in 2015) and 246,000 diving ducks (up from 192,000 in 2015). The increase in diving ducks can be attributed to teams observing more scaup and ruddy ducks, particularly along the Chester River and the Bay’s shoreline in Calvert County. Survey teams also observed dramatically smaller numbers of Canada geese: 293,800, or 42 percent fewer than were counted in 2015.

The USFWS Division of Migratory Bird Management pools these survey results with those from other states to get a sense of the distribution and population size of waterfowl wintering along the Atlantic Flyway, the migration route that follows the Atlantic coast of North America.

Learn more about the Midwinter Waterfowl Survey.


By the Numbers: 87

With its attractive mix of forested uplands, tidal marshes and intertidal mud flats, beaches and manmade rocky shores, the Chesapeake Bay offers a wide range of habitats to waterbirds. Even in the dead of winter, the productivity and position of the nation’s largest estuary—which offers fish, grasses and aquatic invertebrates to eat and is located in the center of the Atlantic Flyway—make it a perfect place for those birds that depend on aquatic resources to take up residence. Indeed, according to a report from the Center for Conservation Biology, the Bay supports 87 species of waterbirds during winter months.

Of these wintering waterbirds, 14 species rely on the Bay to serve as habitat for more than 10 percent of their continental populations. Learn about five of these species below.

Image by Patrick Rolands/Shutterstock

1. The canvasback (Aythya valisineria) is the largest species of diving duck, with a long, sloping profile and wedge-shaped head. Because the birds keep their breeding plumage for most of the year, males are often seen with chestnut-colored heads, black breasts and white wings, sides and bellies. Canvasbacks feed on the roots, leaves and buds of underwater grasses—with wild celery a favorite winter food—as well as snails, clams and other aquatic invertebrates. In 2015, researchers with the Maryland Mid-winter Waterfowl Survey recorded 64,200 canvasbacks along the state’s Bay shoreline and Atlantic coast. This is one of the state’s highest canvasback counts since the mid-1960s, and close to the survey’s 2014 estimate of 68,400 birds.

Image by Erni/Shutterstock

2. The horned grebe (Podiceps auritus) is a small, duck-like waterbird whose plumage is black and white during winter months. During the breeding season, it has black and chestnut plumage and two golden patches of feathers behind its scarlet eyes. It can raise and lower these “horns” at will, and these give the species its common name. Horned grebes can use their straight, stubby bills to pick insects out of the air or off of the water’s surface, but most often dive into the water to hunt for aquatic invertebrates.

Image by Paul Reeves Photography/Shutterstock

3. The long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis) is a medium-sized diving duck that has been reported to forage for food at depths of up to 200 feet. In the Chesapeake Bay, however, the birds usually dive to depths of 25 feet to reach the plant matter, small fish and aquatic invertebrates on which it feeds. Male long-tailed ducks have two long and slender tail feathers—which give the species its common name—and often have a pink band near the tip of their black bills. The birds often swim in small groups within a large, loose gathering of several hundred individuals. In 2015, researchers with the Maryland Mid-winter Waterfowl Survey recorded 100 long-tailed ducks along the state’s Bay shoreline and Atlantic coast. This is the state’s lowest long-tailed duck count of the last five years, and continues the decline that has been recorded since 2012, when 800 birds were observed.

Image by Steve Byland/Shutterstock

4. The ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) is one of the smallest ducks of the Chesapeake Bay. The chubby bird has a long, stiff tail—which it often holds upright—and a wide, gray bill—which on males turns blue in the summer. Ruddy ducks dive into the water to search for aquatic plants and invertebrates and to seek refuge from predators, diving instead of flying when frightened. In 2015, researchers with the Maryland Mid-winter Waterfowl Survey recorded 20,000 ruddy ducks along the state’s Bay shoreline and Atlantic coast. This is just below the state’s short-term average ruddy duck count.

Image by Menno Schaefer/Shutterstock

5. The Atlantic brant (Branta bernicla) is a small goose with a small, black head; short, black bill and neck; white necklace; and light gray belly. Brants graze on land, dip their heads underwater and upend their whole bodies to feed on aquatic plants and invertebrates. Eelgrass is a favorite food and staple of their diet. In 2015, researchers with the Maryland Mid-winter Waterfowl Survey recorded 900 brants along state’s Bay shoreline and Atlantic coast. This is just below the state’s short-term average brant count.

Catherine Krikstan's avatar
About Catherine Krikstan - Catherine Krikstan is a web writer at the Chesapeake Bay Program. She began writing about the watershed as a reporter in Annapolis, Md., where she covered algae blooms and climate change and interviewed hog farmers and watermen. She lives in Washington, D.C.


How six Chesapeake species are responding to a changing climate

As one of the most vulnerable regions in the nation to the effects of climate change, all aspects of life in the Chesapeake Bay watershed—from people and critters, to habitat and infrastructure—are at risk from its effects. Warming air and water temperatures, sea level rise and extreme weather events are expected to have a significant influence on the Bay region in the coming years, but many changes are already being documented. With recent record-breaking high temperatures, including last year and the first quarter of this year, some species are feeling the heat.

Image courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr

1. Cherry blossoms. Thousands of iconic cherry trees surround the Tidal Basin and national monuments of Washington, D.C., and their blossoms bring countless visitors to the area. Over the past 90 years, cherry blossoms have been blooming earlier, due in part to increasing average seasonal temperatures. Since 1921, Washington’s average March temperatures have warmed more than two degrees Fahrenheit, leading “peak bloom” for the cherry blossoms to shift five days earlier.

2. Chickadees. Two strikingly similar types of chickadees are common in backyards through the United States: in the Southeast, the Carolina chickadee is most common, while the black-capped chickadee dominates the northern states. A narrow band of overlap, called the “hybrid zone,” is where the two chickadees meet and interbreed—and it has been steadily moving northward as temperatures rise. According to one study, the zone has been shifting nearly 0.7 miles each year, moving a total of 7 miles in the past ten years.

Image courtesy Dominic Sherony/Flickr

3. Migratory waterfowl. The Bay region is a key stop for millions of migratory waterfowl during their seasonal flights. But milder winters have caused several bird species to visit in smaller numbers. Many canvasbacks have been stopping short along their migrations due to warming temperatures; one report shows the number of wintering canvasbacks in the Bay region declined from nearly 250,000 in the 1950s to 30,000 in recent years. Some tundra swans have been wintering on open rivers in Canada rather than the shallow waters of the Bay. These changes in waterfowl migrations can take a particular toll on recreational hunters, who are seeing fewer birds migrate through the region later in the season.

4. Fish. Nearly 350 species of finfish swim through the rivers, streams and open waters of the Bay region, and many of these species are particularly sensitive to changes in water temperature. Research suggests that the temperature at which native and migratory fish begin to spawn or migrate (typically 15 degrees Celsius) is occurring nearly three weeks earlier than it did in 1960. In particular, the black sea bass has been rapidly moving its range northward; communities in North Carolina who have typically caught a majority of the black sea bass catch have recently been traveling as far north as New Jersey to meet their quotas.

5. Bay grasses. Underwater grasses are a critical part of the Bay ecosystem, providing food and shelter for some of the Bay’s most iconic species, including young blue crabs. Bay grasses are particularly sensitive to excess rainfall and changes in temperature, meaning warming temperatures and more frequent, more extreme weather events are impacting their health. High temperatures during a 2005 heat wave are blamed for a massive die-off of eelgrass in the Bay, and while many areas have rebounded from the collapse, some eelgrass beds have not yet recovered.

6. Pine beetles. A changing climate doesn’t just affect the iconic, treasured species of the Bay region—it also make it easier for invasive species and pests, like the southern pine beetle, to move in. No bigger than a grain of rice, these beetles burrow under a tree’s bark and consume a layer of the tree, which disrupts the flow of nutrients and typically kills the tree in less than four months. Historically, the beetles were unable to survive north of Delaware. But warming temperatures, especially in the winter months, have allowed the pest to migrate northward along the East Coast, reaching as far as New York.

As environmental conditions continue to change, even more species will be threatened by rising seas, warming temperatures, extreme weather and habitat loss. Under the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, Bay Program partners are committed to building the climate resiliency of the animals, plants, habitats, infrastructure and communities throughout the region.

For more on what you can do, Take Action.

Stephanie Smith's avatar
About Stephanie Smith - Stephanie is the Web Content Manager at the Chesapeake Bay Program. A native of the Midwest, she received her Bachelor’s in Professional Writing from Purdue University and Master of Science degree from the University of Michigan. Stephanie’s lifelong love of nature motivates her to explore solutions to environmental problems and teach others what they can do to help.


Restoration Spotlight: Push for public access at Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve

Nearly 18 million people reside in the Chesapeake Bay region, with more moving to the area each year. Growing disputes over land use have conservationists working hard to protect the robust natural resources that can be found within the Bay region. A significant part of these efforts include developing and improving public access points as means for people to experience, explore and develop connections to the land, water and wildlife.

Nestled in between Accokeek Creek and Potomac Creek, Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve in Stafford, Virginia serves as one of the state’s highest land conservation priorities in the past 10 years. “This is a priority site because it’s such a large intact ecosystem. You have thousands of acres of mature hardwood forest on the coastal plain in Virginia,” explained Michael Lott, Crow’s Nest Manager and Northern Region Steward for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).

In addition to around 2,200 acres of mature hardwood forest, the site boasts 750 acres of nearly pristine wetlands and more than 10 miles of hiking trails, and it acts as a safe haven for wildlife and countless viewing opportunities for critters such as migratory waterfowl, white-tailed deer, river otters and beavers.

The preserve and those who manage it have faced many obstacles over the past few decades, including population growth and development encroaching on the area. “In the 1970’s, there were around 30,000 people in Stafford County; a few of the subdivisions were vacation homes for people in D.C. Now, the population is about 130,000. This is the best remaining tidal marsh in Stafford County, so our priority here is conservation,” said Geoff Austin, Northern Region Operations Steward with DCR.

Despite the vastness of the preserve and the great potential it holds for environmental education and recreational opportunities, the property is largely closed to the public until further operational resources can be effectively implemented.

The dynamic duo of Lott and Austin dedicate 90 percent of their working hours toward maintaining the preserve and trying to make it accessible to the public, but one major hurdle stands in their way – a mile-and-a-half long access road. “The big obstacle is the access road to the [completed] parking lot. We need to raise the money to fix that road. That road has been there since the colonial era, it’s been dug down and needs a lot of work before it’s passable for cars,” explained Austin. The team – with help from volunteers - keeps the trails clear, maintains the parking lot and plans to install proper trail signage once the road is completed.

Lott and Austin measure their success one victory - no matter the size - at a time, their latest being the installation of a handicap-accessible boat ramp to be opened to the public within the next couple of months. The ramp overlooks acres of tidal marsh, provides access to Accokeek Creek and lays adjacent to a half-mile trail complete with benches for wildlife observers. “It’s a great birding spot,” said Austin. The launch is part of a larger plan to connect a water trail system along the Potomac River.

DCR wants the public to be able to experience the preserve’s natural wonder. “In the past, this landscape did not lend itself to farming very well, and so a lot of the soil we have out here is still very much intact. Researchers have said that throughout the mid-Atlantic and East Coast, you can’t find soil like this in very many places anymore, which is why the forest out here is so productive," explained Lott. “A lot of the forest, particularly in the ravines, hasn’t been logged intensively since the Civil War, so it’s trending back toward mature forest. [For this reason] we keep the trails clear and have been holding open houses twice a year for five years now, so people have had the opportunity to see it and enjoy the trails.”

Tending to nearly 3,000 acres of forest and wetlands is no simple task for two people, but the work is done out of a place of deep caring and passion for protecting and sharing the special places in life with the public. “I grew up in this area and it’s nice to have an intact piece of hardwood [forest] that is going to be preserved in the area for years to come. It’s great to be able to walk out there when I’m working or hunting and see the big trees; you don’t see that in many other places in this area. As stewards of the land year-round you spend a lot of time here – it means a lot to be able to take care of this place.” said Austin.

To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.

Jenna Valente's avatar
About Jenna Valente - Jenna developed a passion for conservation through her outdoorsy nature and upbringing in Hawaii, Washington State and Maine. A graduate of Virginia Tech's Executive Master of Natural Resources program and University of Maine's School of Communication and Journalism, she welcomes any opportunity to educate the public about the importance of caring for the environment.


Photo Essay: Artificial reefs slow erosion, build habitat on Chester River

Across the Chesapeake Bay, strong waves crash into shorelines, pulling sand into the water and causing beaches to disappear. In recent decades, scientists have turned to living shorelines and stone reefs to slow this process—known as erosion—and create critical habitat for wildlife. On the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, one such project has proven successful on both counts.

The 2,285-acre island refuge in Rock Hall, Maryland, is part of the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex and has long offered feeding and resting grounds to songbirds, shorebirds and waterfowl. When a narrow piece of land at its southern point—the highest priority habitat at the refuge—proved in danger of washing away, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and several other partners came together to slow the disappearance of the shoreline.

In June, USFWS Biologist Dave Sutherland—along with staff from the Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative (MARI) and Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, both of which are partners in this effort— took our team to the refuge to see the living shoreline and underwater reefs that made it a model of climate resiliency. Five years after construction on these projects began, pieces of land do still break off of the island’s long peninsula that separates Hail Cove, Hail Creek and the Chester River. But the goal was never to stop erosion: it was to slow it down without using the manmade structures that block critters from reaching the beach.

While shoreline erosion is a natural process, sea-level rise has amplified the impacts of wind and wave energy across the watershed. “I look at sea-level rise as a human-induced issue that’s exacerbating what used to be a slower, natural process,” said USFWS Fisheries Biologist John Gill. “Not to say it wasn’t happening before. Just that its rate has increased. And it’s tougher for marshes to keep up.”

For Gill, the Hail Cove restoration project achieves “a nice balancing act” in its use of manmade infrastructure and the natural environment. The essential elements? Headland breakwaters, underwater reefs and a living shoreline. “You’re working with Mother Nature, but still providing erosion control,” Gill said.

Low headland breakwaters placed at each end of Hail Cove maintain the pocket beach, blocking wave energy that might otherwise destroy the shore. A long ribbon reef deemed the “arc of stone” stretches across the cove, offering further protection for the beach and vital habitat for fish, shellfish and invertebrates.

Hooked mussels colonized the ribbon reef soon after it was built, and eastern oysters that were planted there with volunteer help continue to thrive. Algae grow on the granite rocks, small fish live in the reef’s tiny crevices and waterfowl find a source of food on their migrations over the Bay. “A lot of species are habitat-starved, and this [arc of stone] provided a lot of what they need,” Sutherland said. “It’s well-populated with cobies and blennies and worms and macroalgae. It’s really a fantastic habitat.”

Sutherland and his team soon recognized the benefits of installing infrastructure that allowed access to the beach: three weeks after sand was put down, engineers discovered nine diamondback terrapin nests on the shore, proving just how “habitat-starved” these native turtles were.

The Hail Cove project was completed this spring when 11 patch reefs—using one acre of material in all—were laid down over the two and a half-acre cove. The reefs will expand the underwater habitat that is so important to so many critters but has been lost with the decline of the Bay’s native oyster. For Sutherland, these reefs were “the icing on the cake. If the arc of stone is good, the patch reefs are going to be even better,” he said.

DNR Fisheries Biologist and MARI Coordinator Erik Zlokovitz echoed Sutherland’s satisfaction with the project. “This is a multipurpose shallow-water reef system. It’s not just an oyster reef or a fish reef. It’s a multipurpose reef for mussels, oysters and other invertebrates, which provide forage for fish and waterfowl,” he said.

The reef has also attracted recreational anglers to the area, who fish from kayaks and small boats for white perch and striped bass. Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, whose members are recreational fishermen, was a strong supporter of the Hail Cove project. For Sutherland, the cove’s restoration wouldn’t have been a success without the “great partners” that made it possible.

“Living shoreline science is really in its infancy, and every project is an experiment,” Sutherland said. But bringing partners together to strike a balance between manmade infrastructure and natural processes allowed this project to work, and Hail Cove now serves as “a starting point for reef construction in the Chester River,” said Sutherland. Indeed, relief funds for Hurricane Sandy recovery will soon finance further shoreline protection in the same area of the refuge.

“This project is a testament, to a certain extent, that if you build it, they will come,” Sutherland said. “We got to Hail Cove in the nick of time.”

To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.

Images by Alexander Jonesi and Jenna Valente. Captions by Catherine Krikstan.


Restoration Spotlight: Conserving waterfowl habitat at Mallard Haven River Farm

On a blue bird day in Church Creek, Maryland, a white pickup truck bounces down a dirt driveway, splashing through fresh mud puddles and leaving ripples in its wake. The low whirring of female Northern pintail ducks in the middle of their courtship is exuberant, and there is excitement in the air – it is almost time for the birds to make their long migration north.

The truck rounds a bend and hundreds of waterfowl take flight, seeking solace in the nearby Honga River. Landowner Jerry Harris steps out of the truck, his two hunting dogs, Bo and Maddie, in tow. Jerry has owned Mallard Haven River Farm for nearly 20 years and has transformed it from an open pasture to an ideal stopover site for thousands of waterfowl migrating along the Atlantic Flyway.

Harris recounts purchasing the farm as an open pasture with a ditch down the center in the late ‘90s. Initially, he battled saltwater intrusion and high-tide floods of the Chesapeake Bay. His solution involved closing off the connection between the ditch and the Bay and creating a freshwater storage area that can now hold up to 6.5 million gallons of water. With financial assistance from the state of Maryland, Ducks Unlimited and North American Wetlands Conservation Act Grants (NAWCA), he built berms to create a series of separate water impoundments for use by waterfowl across 80 acres of the 230-acre farm.

Harris has hired two full-time employees to help maintain the property. “We’ve tried to do everything to improve the efficiency of our work,” Harris said. “We have pipes in all the impoundments that lead to a main water storage ditch, so we can connect our portable pumps right to the pipes and drive the water wherever we would like. If we’re irrigating this field during a dry period we don’t have to hook hoses up or anything.”

Because his land is privately owned, Harris has the freedom to experiment with unconventional conservation practices. His latest endeavor? Moist soils management, or the slow draw down of water from the impoundments to foster the growth of wetland plants like smartweed, fall panicum and fox tail. “As the water gradually comes down, it will support different kinds of weeds, and if you are good enough at it you can have a whole platter of foods that fulfill the ducks’ dietary needs,” Harris said. Moist soils management is good for the wildlife and the farmer: it cuts fertilizer use, and mechanical tilling is only needed about once every five years.

In the past, Harris grew corn on his farm to provide high-energy food for visiting waterfowl. Harris admits that deer and their affinity for corn have presented a challenge to his habitat management practices. For this reason, he plans to grow rice instead. “It’s literally the same kind of high-carbohydrate food that corn is,” Harris said. “The big advantage is that the deer don’t eat rice. In some fields, nearly half of the corn crop gets eaten by the deer.”

Harris has been an avid hunter since he was a young boy; growing up hunting with his grandfather on the bays north of San Francisco cultivated his passion for conserving wildlife habitat. He now owns three farms in Maryland and one in Montana, all under conservation easements through Ducks Unlimited, the largest land conservation owner in the United States, of which he sits on the board.

“The farm is big enough that on a windy day you can be shooting on the farm and the upwind birds will still be there. With the wild ducks, the thing you want to do if you want to keep them is not disturb them too much, otherwise they find another place to go,” Harris said. He has even calculated exactly how many ducks he and his guests can harvest in a year without negatively impacting waterfowl populations, setting the limit at 175 ducks from all four farms.

Harris designates 20 percent of his time to sitting on the board of Ducks Unlimited and of Waterfowl Chesapeake, a Maryland-based non-profit whose mission is to create, restore and conserve waterfowl habitat in the Chesapeake Bay Region. Together they help draw awareness to protecting area wetlands.

Judy Price, the executive director of Waterfowl Chesapeake, has helped the organization raise more than $5 million for habitat restoration and conservation education projects. Waterfowl Chesapeake, the umbrella organization of the annual Waterfowl Festival, held in November in Easton, Maryland, recently created an alliance for waterfowl conservation that consists of a panel of scientific experts that offer advice to current and prospective habitat restoration initiatives. They have also created a restoration project registry, expanding the visibility of high-value projects to the public and potential funders.

When asked why protecting waterfowl habitat is a priority, Price responded, “The annual migration of waterfowl truly enhances our lives throughout the Chesapeake region and, in particular, the Eastern Shore. Not only do we gain ecological benefits, but also significant economic value, from a healthy waterfowl community. By focusing on maintaining strong habitat, hopefully, we can avoid people, years from now, saying, ‘I remember seeing ducks and geese in the skies. Whatever happened to them?’”

Images by Steve Droter. To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.

Jenna Valente's avatar
About Jenna Valente - Jenna developed a passion for conservation through her outdoorsy nature and upbringing in Hawaii, Washington State and Maine. A graduate of Virginia Tech's Executive Master of Natural Resources program and University of Maine's School of Communication and Journalism, she welcomes any opportunity to educate the public about the importance of caring for the environment.


Severe weather pushes more waterfowl into region

Severe weather to the north of the region pushed a large number of ducks, geese and swans into the main portion of the Chesapeake Bay this winter, leading to a 22 percent jump in the results of Maryland’s 2014 Midwinter Waterfowl Survey.

According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), pilots and biologists from both DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) counted more than 905,000 waterfowl during their aerial assessments of state waters this winter. The birds were easier to count this season than in winters past because a number of them were concentrated in the few ice-free, open waters of the Bay and its tributaries.

This total included 128,000 dabbling ducks and 190,300 diving ducks, representing a 76 and 94 percent jump from last winter, respectively. Indeed, the canvasback count was the highest it has been since the mid-1960s, and estimates for mallards and black ducks were the highest they have been since the mid-1970s. Survey teams also witnessed large numbers of Canada geese along the upper Bay: 512,000, 11 percent more than were witnessed in January 2013.

The USFWS Division of Migratory Bird Management pools these survey results with those from other states to get a sense of the distribution and population size of waterfowl wintering along the Atlantic Flyway. This migration route follows the Atlantic coast of North America, and this winter hosted more than 3.19 million birds. Of this total, teams counted more than 1.6 million in watershed states, including Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York.

Learn more.


Decoy carvers show Chesapeake Bay birds at Waterfowl Festival

Millions of ducks, geese and other waterfowl visit the Chesapeake Bay each year, finding food and habitat in marshes across the watershed. Hunters have long gone after these birds as a source of food, using wooden or plastic decoys to attract them to their blinds. But in recent decades, what were once tools of the hunting trade have become works of art, and modern decoys showcase the carving styles of the artists behind the birds.

“[Decoys] started out as a means of putting food on the table, of attracting live birds,” said Kristin Sullivan, a Ph.D. candidate who studies the heritage behind decoy carving at the University of Maryland. But this soon changed: “By the 1950s, decoys started to become mass-produced, so hunters could get fairly cheap plastic or wooden birds and didn’t have to carve them out themselves.” This, paired with a burgeoning collector’s market created by hunting parties who kept hand-carved decoys as souvenirs, turned decoys into decorative, collectible items.

Now, tourists are a big customer for decoy carvers. So, too, are people who have “some sort of connection to hunting, or some… sort of connection to the landscape from which the bird came,” Sullivan said. Indeed, decoys carved in the Bay region are often evocative of the estuary. “A decoy is going to reflect the landscape,” said Sullivan.

But decoys also reflect the personality of the carver. We interviewed five carvers at the Waterfowl Festival in Easton, Md., to find out how they started carving, what makes their work unique and how the Bay has informed their birds. You can find our questions and their answers below.

Robert Clements, Clements Creations and Woodworking, Smithsburg, Md.

What drew you to decoy carving?
This show did. In about 1987, I came down here for the first time, and decided that once I retired from the Secret Service, this was going to be my job. So way back when, in 1987, is when it all started. I was cutting through one of the buildings, and in a little hallway, there was a gentleman… who was hand-chopping decoys. And I thought that was the neatest thing in the world, that someone could do that. So I’m all self-taught. After I retired, I got a bunch of reference books and I sat out in my workshop and that’s all I did until I felt that [my work] was at a point where I was comfortable with it.

Describe your carving style.
What I like to do is what they call contemporary antiques. It’s just a new bird they try to make old. [Another carver] told me to come up with your own style, don’t copy anybody else, do what you want to do. And that’s exactly what I decided to do.

How has the Chesapeake Bay inspired or informed your work?
I grew up in Takoma Park, and we had relatives around the Bay. I wasn’t a typical Bay guy, but being in the state of Maryland and [experiencing] all the history related to the Bay—you can just get caught up in it.

What role do waterfowlers play in conservation?
The whole hunting type person—you’d be surprised how those people are more in tune with the environment than the techno guys with their iPads and iPods. I think the hunting guys—the old guys especially—can give you a perspective of exactly how they did things in the beginning and how they do things now. It’s probably a 180 degree turn.

What is your favorite bird to carve?
It’d have to be a wood duck. I hate painting them, but they have so many colors in them the bird just pops. It’s a pain to do, but it’s probably the prettiest bird out there.

Ed Wallace, Wildfowl Carvings by Ed Wallace, Galena, Md.

What drew you to decoy carving?
I’ve been carving for about 30 years. We used to visit the Waterfowl Festival all the time, and I was down here and I said to myself one time, I think I can do that.

Describe your carving style.
Well, it’s my style. I have never had a lesson, and I don’t give lessons, because I want to do birds my way. I don’t want to do a bird like somebody else, and I don’t want somebody else to do a bird like mine.

How has the Chesapeake Bay inspired or informed your work?
At one time, I was a commercial hunter. I took hunting parties [out] and grew up on the Bay. It’s just bred into you.

What role do waterfowlers play in conservation?
More than a lot of people think. You know, they preserve what they have. And if they don’t, there’s not going to be any [more birds].

What is your favorite bird to carve?
A mallard drake. Why? I don’t know. I don’t like to do wood ducks; I don’t know anybody that does. I did one a couple of months ago, and that’s probably the last one I do. I don’t mind the carving. But I don’t care what you do, you can’t make one look natural.

Gilmore B. Wagoner, Quality Working Decoys by Gilmore B. Wagoner, Havre de Grace, Md.

What drew you to decoy carving?
A necessity. When I first started hunting in the early sixties, we couldn’t afford to buy decoys, so we made them. And the first ones we made were made from two by fours and two by sixes. Kind of looked like something a little kid would make, but they worked. We were making blue bills and canvasbacks, and we made some mallards, but they weren’t that good. Back in the old days, all you had to do was paint a tin can solid black and it would work. You could decoy a duck with just a painted one-gallon can. Now, they’re manufacturing decoys for the hunter, not for the ducks. The prettier a decoy is, it draws the hunter to them. It doesn’t, per se, draw the duck to the decoy.

Describe your carving style.
My carving style today is Upper Chesapeake Bay. I worked for [Havre de Grace decoy carver] Madison Mitchell for approximately seven years. While I was working for him, I worked for the federal government at Aberdeen Proving Ground, where I tested military equipment. The person you go to if you live in Havre de Grace and you want to learn how to make decoys is Madison Mitchell. I don’t think there’s a decoy maker in Havre de Grace that did not work for him.

How has the Chesapeake Bay inspired or informed your work?
I’ve always lived in Havre de Grace. I’ve never lived beyond three blocks from the water. When I was a kid, back in the early fifties, our whole summer was spent around that water, swimming, fishing, crabbing or doing whatever kids seven, eight, nine, 10 years old do. It’s a heritage thing with me, just like the rest of the guys here on the Eastern Shore. They grow up on some of the islands around here; they were brought up fishing, crabbing and eeling. We just followed the path of our forefathers and our grandfathers and our fathers. It’s in our blood. I’ll probably never leave Havre de Grace or leave the water.

What role do waterfowlers play in conservation?
I’ve always been associated with Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited and even this organization here, the Waterfowl Festival. I’ve always given decoys so they can raise money. Of course, they transfer the money into their conservation efforts. I donate the material or the products, so they can raise the money and do the [conservation] work.

What is your favorite bird to carve?
I have two. Widgeon, a.k.a. bald pates, and pintails. Canvasbacks are okay, but there’s just so many of them around. I tend to lean toward the more colorful ducks: mallards, pintails and widgeon. That’s generally what I like to carve, something more colorful.

Jeannie Vincenti, Vincenti Decoys, Havre de Grace, Md.

What drew you to decoy carving?
My husband, [Patrick Vincenti], is a carver. I work with him on a daily basis, and I run our store in Havre de Grace. My husband was drawn to [carving] because he was a hunter, and as a hunter, he had a need to make his own decoys. As he started making them, people wanted them, so he left his full-time job in 1986 to be a full-time carver.

Describe his carving style.
It’s definitely a Maryland-style bird. But more specifically, it’s an Upper Bay working decoy.

How has the Chesapeake Bay inspired or informed his work?
Living next to this estuary—which is probably one of the best in the world—the duck hunting here was outstanding. It still is. So I would have to say, the availability of the ducks made the desire to make the decoys and hunt, and as you hunted all those years and you made the decoys, you develop a tremendous respect for that Bay and its richness.

What role do waterfowlers play in conservation?
Just like deer hunters or anything else, you have to keep the numbers of birds in check, because there’s not enough food. And as we infringe upon their space, there’s less food for them. So by following the rules and the guidelines of waterfowling, you’re doing it in a fair and right way, and you’re keeping the numbers in check, just like you would for deer or any other animal.

What is your favorite bird that you and your husband sell in your store?
My husband’s would be the canvasback; mine would have to be the black duck. I like the way he paints it, and it just has a look that I like. But the canvasback is the bird that is most desirable, and [Pat] has a strong fondness for canvasbacks.

Charles Jobes, Charles Jobes Decoys, Havre de Grace, Md.

What drew you to decoy carving?
My dad has made decoys for 63 years. We all made decoys as kids; I’ve got two brothers, younger brother Joey, older brother Bobby. My dad worked for Madison Mitchell in Havre de Grace, Madison Mitchell is my godfather. So we more or less worked for my dad, all of us coming up. As the years went on, we always worked on the water crabbing, fishing and making decoys. And I’ve made decoys for a living for probably 35 years. We all make decoys for a living now.

Describe your carving style.
The carving style is a Chesapeake Bay decoy—an Upper Chesapeake Bay decoy. Where we live, the carving style of the decoy [features] an up-curved tail [and] regular, slick paint. It’s a regular gunning decoy paint style and carving style, made out of white pine and cedar and basswood.

How has the Chesapeake Bay inspired or informed your work?
When we were kids, we body booted on the Susquehanna Flats, [standing in the water, surrounded by decoys]. It’s an area that years ago, in the twenties and thirties and even before that, was home to hundreds of thousands of canvasbacks. Everybody would come to the Flats to kill canvasbacks, black heads and redheads. The Chesapeake Bay is an estuary where all the ducks and geese come in the wintertime, and that was the first place that they stopped, coming down. Then they would disperse through the whole Bay. We grew up on that water.

What role do waterfowlers play in conservation?
When they started the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Federal] Duck Stamp in 1937, when Ding Darling made the first Duck Stamp, that was the first conservation stamp. All that money goes to waterfowl. If you didn’t have waterfowlers that hunt, there would be no money to go to the wetlands that Ducks Unlimited restored in North Dakota, South Dakota, the boreal forest. There wouldn’t be anything.

What is your favorite bird to carve?
Canvasback. Drake canvasback. They’re probably the easiest duck to make, but they’re the king of ducks. They’re just so pristine, and they’re a neat duck. They’re the king of the Chesapeake.

Catherine Krikstan's avatar
About Catherine Krikstan - Catherine Krikstan is a web writer at the Chesapeake Bay Program. She began writing about the watershed as a reporter in Annapolis, Md., where she covered algae blooms and climate change and interviewed hog farmers and watermen. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Keywords: history, waterfowl

More wintering waterfowl counted in Maryland in 2013

This winter saw an increase in waterfowl along Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay shoreline and Atlantic coast.

While pilots and biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) counted fewer diving and dabbling ducks this winter than they did in the 2012 Midwinter Waterfowl Survey, these same crews counted more geese.

According to a DNR news release, both Canada geese and snow geese were “noticeably more abundant during this year’s survey,” with crews counting 462,000 Canada geese—a three-year high—and 83,300 snow geese—a five-year high. Biologists have attributed the boost in goose numbers to two factors: last spring’s successful nesting season and December snow cover in New York and southern Canada, which encouraged geese to migrate into the Bay region right before the survey was taken.

While more geese could mean more damage to area farms—as the birds forage on green cover crops and grain crops—most farmers “have learned to deal with the problem,” said Larry Hindman, wildlife biologist and Waterfowl Project Leader with DNR. Fluttering plastic flags, bald eagle effigies placed in the middle of fields and the loud bang of a rifle or shotgun have all proven effective at deterring persistent geese, Hindman said, and those farmers who need extra help can find assistance and advice in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Damage Management program.

Resident Canada geese can pose a problem for rural, suburban and urban residents alike, and are considered overabundant in the region. While the birds do provide hunters with a chance for recreation, resident geese can overgraze wetlands and lawns and leave their droppings to pollute local rivers and streams. While the Midwinter Waterfowl Survey does not make a distinction between resident and migratory geese—as both stocks look the same during an aerial survey—DNR researchers do monitor the resident population using leg bands recovered from hunters.

The Midwinter Waterfowl Survey is used as an index of long-term wintering waterfowl trends. The estimates measure waterfowl populations along the Atlantic Flyway, which is a bird migration route that follows North America’s Atlantic Coast and Appalachian Mountains.

Read the full waterfowl survey results on the DNR website.


Photo Essay: Poplar Island restoration brings critical habitat back to Bay

Part construction site, part mud pit and part wildlife refuge, the Paul S. Sarbanes Ecosystem Restoration Project at Poplar Island, Md., tackles two unique challenges in the Chesapeake Bay.

First, sand and sediment accumulate in the Bay’s vital shipping channels—particularly during heavy rain events like Tropical Storm Lee in 2011—and threaten to block cargo ships that allow the Port of Baltimore to contribute $2 billion each year to the region’s economy.

On the other hand, sea level rise, sinking land and increasingly frequent strong storms are quickly eroding away the Bay’s few remaining islands, threatening the survival of iconic wildlife species and critical habitat.

Tangier Island, Va., shows evidence of advanced shoreline erosion on Dec. 7, 2012.

Poplar Island, for example, spanned more than 1,100 acres in the mid-1800s and supported a small community of families, farmers and fishermen until it was abandoned in the 1930s. When restoration began in the 1990s, four scattered acres were all that remained—less than half a percent of the island’s historical size.

But the island that was nearly destroyed is now destined to be rebuilt using 65 million cubic yards of sedimentary silt—imagine a giant cube of mud a quarter mile long in each direction—dredged up from the bottom of the Bay.

In 1998, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to construct stone “containment dykes.” The walls are 10 feet tall and surround Poplar Island’s former footprint, and the island has been divided into six massive containment cells for building island habitat. 

The western half of the island, surrounded by an inner ring of 27-foot dykes, is being transformed into 570 acres of forested upland island habitat similar to that of neighboring Coaches Island.

Coaches Island, once vulnerable to the same forces that washed away its neighbor, supports upland species like bald eagles and provides a shallow inlet utilized by nesting diamondback terrapins in the summer and migratory waterfowl during winter.

The eastern half of Poplar Island is further divided into 14 “sub-cells” undergoing various stages of wetland construction and management.

Low-lying wetlands are created through a four-step process. First, dredged sediment is brought in on barges by the Maryland Port Administration, mixed into a watery slurry, and pumped into each cell at precise levels. 

As the slurry dries, it forms a massive crust—a vast, other-worldly landscape—that is the base for building habitat.

Next, heavy machines carefully grade the crust and excavate ditches that will function as tidal creeks in the completed marsh.

Then a spillway is opened to expose the new landscape to tidal flow, and water is allowed to move between the Bay and the newly built marshland.

Finally, individual plugs of smooth and saltmeadow cordgrass are planted row upon row into the nutrient-rich soil. 

These native plants are capable of withstanding strong storms while offering food and shelter to the 175 species of shorebirds, songbirds, waterfowl and raptors that now visit Poplar Island.

Poplar Island's marshes offer protection and isolation from human and mammalian predators, and the open waters along its perimeter provide feeding opportunities for diving ducks like buffleheads, scaups and long-tailed ducks.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) manages the island’s vegetation and wildlife—including less welcome species like the Canada goose. Fences and fluttering pink flags help deter geese and prevent them from overfeeding on expensive marsh grass.

On our visit in January 2013, USFWS wildlife technician Robbie Callahan led a monitoring team to assess the density of muskrat huts in the marsh. The semiaquatic rodents, though a critical part of the wetland ecosystem, are controlled to prevent damage from overpopulation. 

The USFWS also monitors avian predators—like the northern harriers that feed on small rodents—and migratory waterfowl, attracted to Poplar Island during their spring and fall trips along the Atlantic Flyway.

With the help of USFWS experts, Poplar Island is able to provide a range of Bay species with the safe nesting habitat that only a protected, well-managed island can.

Even sunken barges—placed here in the mid-1990s as “breakwaters” in an attempt to retain the island’s remnants—have become host to nesting ospreys and black-crowned night herons.

Piles of brush—created using old Christmas trees provided by the Maryland Environmental Service—help protect vulnerable species like black ducks during mating season.

According to the USFWS, Poplar Island is well on its way to becoming a keystone wildlife refuge. “Poplar Island is an important refuge,” said USFWS biologist Pete McGowan, who specializes in waterfowl and island restoration. “There are species that are highly dependent on these remote island habitats. And this is a habitat type that is rapidly disappearing from the Chesapeake Bay. We need to do what we can to maximize the remaining island habitat that we have, and create new island habitat whenever possible.”

The Paul S. Sarbanes Ecosystem Restoration Project is scheduled for completion in 2041, with a final price tag estimated at $1.4 billion over 45 years. Rebuilding Poplar Island is an enormous, expensive and painstaking process—but its virtues of “beneficial use” have been extolled throughout the conservation and business communities alike, and it has become a "win-win" for the Bay and all the watershed provides.

View more photos on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.

Steve Droter's avatar
About Steve Droter - Steve is Multimedia Coordinator (Photographer & Video Producer) for the Chesapeake Bay Program. @SteveDroter


Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge expands by 825 acres

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has purchased 825 acres of land along the Nanticoke River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to expand Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

The purchase conserves two tracts of land: one along a section of the Nanticoke River near Vienna and another to the north on Marshyhope Creek near Brookview.

The land has been identified as prime habitat for migratory waterfowl such as black ducks, blue-winged teal and wood ducks, as well as for bald eagles and the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel. Additionally, the southern land tract is located along the Nanticoke section of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Water Trail.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is one of the nation’s premier national wildlife refuges. It consists of more than 27,000 acres, including one-third of Maryland’s tidal wetlands and some of the most ecologically important areas in the state.

Visit Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge’s website to learn more about the refuge and the expansion.


Photo Tour: Decoys and Waterfowl in Havre de Grace

I have come across quite a few hobbies and crafts in my day that I never knew existed. When we visited the Decoy Museum in Havre de Grace recently, I was introduced to yet another.

If you haven’t had a chance to check out the museum and you are in the area, I would suggest taking a few minutes out of your day to do so. The decoys really are works of art.

The museum displays hundreds of these creations, but also gives a detailed history of the art form itself. You can see a few examples in the photo slideshow below.

While we were there, we took some time to get out and take some pictures of the shoreline and wildlife. As the weather continues to warm, we look for more and more of these opportunities.

Do you have any memories associated with decoys or waterfowl? We’d love to hear from you, leave a response below.

Matt Rath's avatar
About Matt Rath - Matt was the multimedia specialist for the Bay Program.


Fewer wintering waterfowl counted in Maryland in 2011

Scientists observed more than 640,000 ducks, geese and swans along Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay shoreline this winter as part of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ annual Midwinter Waterfowl Survey. This is a decline from 2010, when approximately 787,000 waterfowl were counted.

The decline is largely due to fewer Canada geese and snow geese being counted for the survey. Large numbers of geese likely went undetected because they were on farms and other inland habitats. Overall, the wintering Canada geese remained high.

More ducks were counted in 2011 (199,300) than in 2010 (173,700) due to snow and cold weather north of Maryland, according to DNR. In particular, there were more mallards and canvasbacks, as well as an exceptional number of gadwalls on the Susquehanna Flats.

The Midwinter Waterfowl Survey has been conducted annually throughout the United States since the early 1950s. Maryland survey results are ultimately pooled with results from other states to measure wintering waterfowl distribution and populations throughout the Atlantic Flyway, according to DNR Waterfowl Project Leader Larry Hindman.

“The survey is conducted in a coordinated manner across the Atlantic Flyway states to provide an annual index of the population size for important waterfowl species like black ducks, Atlantic brant and tundra swans,” Hindman said.

Visit Maryland DNR’s website to view the full survey results.

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