Few people who visit or live on the Chesapeake need to be told it's a uniquely beautiful place. Few sounds in Bay country are as stirring as the high-up honking of Canada geese flying in on a fall northwesterly. And few sights are as stunning as a golden Eastern Shore marsh in late autumn or early winter, swarming with waterfowl that have followed generations of forebears to the Chesapeake for a winter of feeding and resting.
The following are overviews of the four types of waterfowl that visit or live year-round in the Chesapeake Bay region. The duck decoys pictured are from the collection of the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art.
Roughly 260,000 diving ducks visit or reside year-round in Bay waters, with the canvasback the most abundant. In the 1930s an estimated half million canvasbacks congregated each autumn off Poole's Island in Maryland, but today only about 50,000 come to the Chesapeake—a decrease due to changes in their nesting sites in the North American prairie, over-hunting, and declines in Bay grasses (SAV).
Key Features: Large feet on short legs set toward the back of the body, suiting these species for diving and swimming under water. Divers paddle rapidly along the water's surface to gain speed before taking flight. Awkward on land, most species prefer open water, where canvasbacks and scaups may congregate in large rafts.
Preferred Foods: While some favor plant food such as wild celery and pondweed, today most consume a mixed diet that may include small fish, mollusks, crustaceans, worms and insects.
Seasons in the Bay area: Fall to spring.
Aquatic plants are the chief food of dabbling ducks, which go “bottoms up” to forage underwater. The familiar mallards adapt well to human activities and their population has remained strong with about 55,000 birds counted in 2004. By contrast, black ducks are shyer and more dependent upon the marshes and Bay islands for forage and nesting grounds. They have undergone a sharp decline.
Key Features: Legs located in the middle of the body; limiting the ability to dive but making it easier to walk on land. Dabblers spend most of their time in the shallows, close to the water's edge, “tipping” for their food and taking to the air at a moment's notice.
Preferred Foods: Submerged grasses, seeds and other plant material.
Seasons in the Bay area: Mallards, black ducks year-round; wood ducks spring through fall; green-winged teal mostly fall and winter; wigeons, gadwalls, pintails fall through spring.
Migratory Canada geese, Atlantic brant and snow geese all overwinter in the Bay region, and Canada geese are a common sight grazing on leftover grain in Eastern Shore fields. Their numbers declined in the 1990s due to poor tundra nesting conditions and overhunting, but with careful management stocks today are rebounding.
The larger Giant Canada goose is a Bay resident. In 2004 over 200,000 were counted in Maryland and Virginia , mainly along the Bay's western shore where they frequent golf courses, lakes, farms and wetlands. Their impacts on water quality, agriculture, public lands, and food for migratory species have spurred ongoing control efforts.
Key Features: Along with swans, the largest waterfowl; migratory species grow up to ten pounds, resident Canada geese up to fourteen pounds. Widespread legs adapt them well for walking, and Canada geese especially spend much of their time grazing on land. In ponds or other shallow water a goose dips its head under to pull up vegetation.
Preferred Foods: Grain, grasses, aquatic plants.
Seasons in the Bay area: Most common in winter; resident Canada geese year-round.
The tundra swan is the only native North American swan to visit the Bay. These “Eastern population” birds raise their young in summer on Arctic tundra, then head southeast for winter. Up to 30,000 winter on the Bay (most in Maryland ), feeding on clams, underwater grasses and corn in upland fields.
The mute swan (which is usually silent) was introduced to the U.S. from Europe and generally is viewed as a pest. The birds are aggressive toward other waterfowl and overgraze and uproot underwater grasses, often destroying entire grass beds.
Key Features: White plumage with an extremely long neck that is held straight when the bird is swimming. In flight an adult tundra swan stretches nearly five feet long, with a wingspan of some eighty inches. Like dabbling ducks, swans tip “bottom up” when they feed in ponds and waterways.
Preferred Foods: Aquatic plants, seeds and field grain.
Seasons in the Bay area: Winter.