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James Drake

Every January, teams from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources conduct multiple aerial surveys to count waterfowl in and around the Chesapeake Bay and Maryland’s Atlantic coast.

This gives us a pretty accurate snapshot every year into the overall bird populations wintering in Maryland. However, factors such as local ice cover, snow cover in more northern states and general weather conditions can greatly skew the results up or down.

We’ve been doing these surveys for nearly a quarter of a century now and similar counts are done in all 11 eastern states along the Atlantic Flyway from New Hampshire to Virginia.

We count the birds to see how the various individual species populations are doing and it gives us necessary information to intelligently set the hunting seasons for next year. We need to know about reproduction success every year and it’s a whole lot easier to count birds around here during our relatively mild winters than in the sometimes really remote and far more isolated arctic breeding grounds.

The 2013 results were just released last week and Maryland saw an overall increase in the total numbers of waterfowl compared to last year in this latest Midwinter Waterfowl Survey, although the count was down for many species of ducks.

The total number of ducks estimated in Maryland this winter was 175,500, while 230,600 was the duck count in 2012. The experts believe some of this decline can be attributed to an unseasonably mild winter that delayed the arrival of most diving ducks to the Chesapeake Bay, especially scaup.

The Canada geese population wintering in Maryland this year is way up from last year, 462,000 in 2013 versus 342,600 from last year and the snow geese numbers almost doubled last year’s count, 83,300 in 2013 against 43,000 for 2012.

The total waterfowl counted this year was 739,600, which is up from the last two years of 651,800 in 2011 and 633,700 in 2012. However, if you go back to 2009 and 2010, those numbers were even better at 836,900 and 787,100, respectively.

Waterfowl generally migrate north/south across America on four flyways: Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific. Maryland is in the Atlantic Flyway, an area roughly from the Atlantic coast to the Allegheny Mountains.

Old momma

Speaking of birds, The Birding Wire reported last week on the oldest known wild bird to hatch a new chick.

This Laysan albatross, her name is Wisdom, is estimated to be about 62 years old.

On Feb. 3, she hatched a single chick on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge for the sixth consecutive year.

Wisdom was first banded by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1956 when she was found on a nest in the same area of this refuge and her age was estimated at that time to be at least 5 years old and probably closer to eight. These seabirds that nest on Midway are monitored upon their arrival and Wisdom has worn out five leg bands throughout her long life.

”As Wisdom rewrites the record books, she provides new insights into the remarkable biology of seabirds,” said Bruce Peterjohn, chief of the North America Bird Banding Program at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel. “It is beyond words to describe the amazing accomplishments of this wonderful bird and how she demonstrates the value of bird banding to better understand the world around us. If she were human, she would be eligible for Medicare in a couple years yet she is still regularly raising young and annually circumnavigating the Pacific Ocean. Simply incredible.”

Sue Schulmeister, manager of the Midway Atoll NWF, noted, “Wisdom is one of those incredible seabirds that has provided the world valuable information about the longevity of these beautiful creatures and reinforces the importance of breeding adults in the population. This information helps us measure the health of our oceans that sustain albatross.”

I find it truly remarkable that this old bird is still in her chick-bearing years at age 62. What’s even more incredible is the number of miles aloft Wisdom has likely logged.

The experts figure about 50,000 miles a year for an adult albatross, which means Wisdom has flown at least two million to three million miles since she was first banded. That’s about five trips from the Earth to the Moon and back again.

Today, 19 of the world’s 21 species of albatross are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The biggest threats to them are lead poisoning of chicks on Midway from lead paint used decades ago, longline fishing where the birds are sometimes hooked and drowned and pollution, especially from all the plastic garbage floating out there on our oceans.

According to old seafaring legends, albatross are the souls of lost sailors and should never be killed.

Albatross are also known as gooney birds, no doubt from their awkward landings on a hard surface after spending so many months at sea.

They do, however, have a really long wingspan and are excellent and graceful flyers. They can soar mile after mile riding the wind currents and never have to flap their wings to stay aloft.

Trout stocking

Last Wednesday and Thursday, the trout hatchery trucks were rolling throughout Southern Maryland. They also made several stops and deposited thousands of rainbow and golden trout into area waters as part of a preseason stocking program.

Local waters that received some of these trout were Calvert Cliffs Pond, Hughesville Pond, Myrtle Grove Pond and Wheatley Lake at Gilbert Run Park in Dentsville. In Prince George’s County, also receiving trout were Allens Pond, Cosca Lake, Melwood Pond and Tucker Pond.

Maryland’s trout stocking program is funded entirely through the sale of non-tidal fishing licenses, trout stamps and the Federal Sportfish Restoration Program (Wallop-Breaux), which generates funds by a special excise tax on boating and angling equipment.