“We’re having a good season for sea ducks, probably better than for regular ducks.”
DIFW Biologist Brad Allen
On a cold, snowy morning last week, Brad Allen leaned against an 18-foot Lund boat and admitted the weather seemed perfectly suited to one of his favorite pastimes.
“This would be a good sea-duck hunting day, very typical of the conditions we’ve experienced this past month, particularly,” Allen said. “Very windy. Very cold. Very challenging.”
Allen knows a fair bit about sea-duck hunting, and about sea ducks in general. He’s a biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, and serves as the department’s bird group leader.
Unfortunately, on this day the Lund wasn’t being prepared for launch … it was sitting on a trailer, at the DIF&W’s Bangor office.
This wasn’t a hunting trip, for Allen or for me. It was, however, an informative fact-finding mission nonetheless.
Allen knows his ducks, you see. And every time I chat with him about the birds he studies for a living, I learn new things.
While many of the state’s duck hunters have stowed their shotguns for the year — the seasons on regular ducks in some zones is already over, and in other zones will end next week — coastal hunters enjoy a four-month season on sea ducks that doesn’t end until Jan. 31.
Allen said despite the unpredictable weather, sea-duck hunting has become increasingly popular over the past 20 years or so.
“What attracts waterfowl hunters from around the United States to sea-duck hunting in Maine is the ability to take a common eider in the United States,” Allen said. “Maine and Massachusetts winters most of the North Atlantic population of common eiders, and you can’t get them anywhere else. So they come here.”
Three species of scoters and the long-tailed ducks add to the abundant sea-duck population, and Allen said the season and bag limits are both generous, which makes the state a popular hunting destination.
The daily bag limit on sea ducks is seven birds, of which no more than five can be eiders, nor more than four can be scoters.
Allen advises new hunters to seek out a guide who will be used to the conditions and properly equipped for the hunt.
Not giving Mother Nature her due respect is a recipe for disaster.
“[It’s a] very unforgiving ocean out there, the water’s in the 40s, the temperature’s often in single digits, it’s always windy,” Allen said. “There’s lots of opportunities in Maine to hunt sea ducks because we’ve got so many islands and ledges that you can get on, and abundant birds. But you’ve got to have appropriate equipment, which the guides have.”
Allen said sea-duck hunting will taper off a bit during January, when temperatures drop enough to discourage all but the most avid hunters and guides.
Allen headed onto the water twice last week, and said he had a great time.
“I didn’t shoot a bird. I just go to be with others in a hunting scenario where I’m seeing people, maybe from out of state, or friends that don’t spend as much time on the coast as I do, experiencing the coast of Maine in December with hundreds of birds flying by,” Allen said. “It’s just spectacular.”
Allen is also learning during those hunts, and constantly gathering more data on the birds he studies on a daily basis.
Because of that, he’s also a good person to ask about the current sea-duck season … and he’s always willing to share a few opinions.
“We’re having a good season for sea ducks, probably better than for regular ducks,” said Allen, who pointed out that good flocks of sea ducks have been available for hunters in midcoast and eastern Maine from October through last week.
Allen said while many inland Mainers have grown accustomed to the ducks they see during the summer months, sea ducks are more mysterious.
“The beauty of it is, they’re waterfowl, just like black ducks, mallards, teal, but they are so different in their life history than the ducks you’re comfortable with,” Allen said. “They live a long time. They live in a marine environment, totally. They have few numbers of young. The oldest eider duck in Maine, on record — we have the banding record — is 21 years, 5 months. Old.”
That longevity poses management challenges to Allen and the DIF&W, though.
“For that reason, they can be overhunted, they can be over-shot,” Allen said. “I’m working with some collaborators to make sure that the harvest rates that we’re experiencing on the Maine coast are sustainable. And to that end, we’ve banded 11,000 eiders in the last five years and we’re getting [reports of] hunter recoveries, of course, every week at this time of year.”
Allen said that data will help in making future wildlife management decisions.
“With that information we can determine if our seasons, as liberal as they are, are appropriate,” he said. “If they aren’t, we need to make adjustments.”