Hyde County is so remote there are no bright city lights to haze out a starry sky. But, while it has few human residents, it has an incredible winter population of ducks.
One of the centers of that waterfowl universe is Gull Rock Game Lands, where Dale Davis, a wildlife biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, was headed on a moonless, star-filled night.
The game lands covers almost 35,000 acres of prime waterfowl territory — marsh, bays and impoundments — around Fairfield, Engelhard and Swanquarter, and Davis was headed to the Loop Road Impoundment.
“Gull Rock’s Loop Road Impoundment is one of the few coastal impoundments that require no advance draw permits for hunting,” he said. “It doesn’t get much pressure because it is so remote. Most hunters in the New Holland area have access to more consistent hunting, and it’s a long drive from other parts of the state. The hunting is also hit-and-miss, so hunters from other areas don’t want to make the long drive.”
Davis passed a private impoundment on Outfall Canal Road about four miles from Gull Rock. He said when private impoundments get hunted, pressured ducks head for Gull Rock. Another great time to hunt Gull Rock is when the weather turns nasty.
“When the wind blows hard, it moves the ducks off Pamlico Sound, and they head for the sheltered water at Gull Rock,” he said. “Species that we get at Gull Rock are wood ducks, green-winged teals, black ducks, wigeon and a few gadwall. Early in the season, we get some blue-winged teal, and later in the season, it’s probably the best coastal impoundment for tundra swan for those who have a swan permit.”
Gull Rock’s E. Merle Edwards/Loop Road Impoundment covers 300 acres; it was built in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The area was logged and the impoundment created in conjunction with the logging operation. Roads built for logging were incorporated into the impoundment dikes.
“It had standing timber, and over the years, we had some projects to clear the timber,” Davis said. “Only one small area of mostly dead timber remains in the middle.”
Davis turned left onto East Green Road, then onto Loop Road, and he stopped at the first parking area. He saw a couple of vehicles and watched for flashlight beams that showed where hunters were setting up decoys in the impoundment.
“A few parties of hunters will help us because it’s such a big impoundment,” Davis said. “They will help keep the ducks stirred up.”
Davis continued driving to a second parking area. He pulled on his waders, shouldered a bag with a dozen decoys and grabbed his shotgun. As he walked around a closed gate, his flashlight beam reflected off a new aluminum riser.
“We put new risers in two years ago,” he said. “They help us manage the water better. This year, the impoundment has been under aquatic management, which grows plants like foxtail — which is a wild millet — spike rush and perhaps some submerged plants ducks use like wigeon grass.”
Every couple of years, the water level is lowered for a moist-soils management regimen that Davis said promotes other wild millets, barnyard grass and greater densities of spike rush and foxtail.
“Moist-soils management also keeps the bottom solid for better footing,” he said. “We also have some phragmites, an invasive reed species. We use herbicides to control it, but we keep a little bit around for cover. The only other high cover is along some old windrows, but they have deteriorated over time.”
There are no planted crops in the impoundment. It is not farmable because of the contour of the ground and the amount of salt in the soil.
“People are so conditioned to hunting flooded corn, but these plants are higher in protein than corn and therefore are better for the ducks,” Davis said. “We pump out of the canal, which is about a mile from the sound, so there is a high salt content. We draw the water down after the birds leave, then in the spring, we bring the water level up so the desirable plants can grow. As the hunting season progresses, we lower the water level for hunter access and to expose plants ducks use for food.”
Davis walked a quarter-mile, then crossed a foot-bridge over a perimeter canal to enter the impoundment. He walked a hundred yards through ankle- to shin-deep, water with grasses wrapping around his feet.
“You can walk into the impoundment from the first parking area or go around and enter it from one of three foot-bridges,” he said. “You can wear hip boots, but most hunters wear waders so they can crouch without getting their backsides wet. Some hunters bring marsh stools. A drag boat is handy for keeping your shotgun dry if you trip and fall and for bringing along a stool, but I like traveling light.”
Davis set his decoys in an open area with a small creek branching off. He pointed out a dark stand of needle rush.
“We can crouch or kneel down to hide in there,” he said. “Bringing along a cushion helps if you prefer to kneel.”
As daylight came, so did the mosquitoes, but Davis forgot about swatting them as gunfire came from a nearby hunting party. He watched a flock of wood ducks they had fired at swing over his decoys, and he splashed a hen.
“We get a lot of wood ducks,” he said. “They usually fly at first light.”
The other parties downed a black duck and some teal. As the sun cleared the surrounding trees, the day warmed fast, and the duck flight trickled to a halt. Davis began bagging his decoys.
“It’s a better day for bird watching than duck hunting,” he said, “but you can’t control the weather. I’m happy to have a wood duck — and a great impoundment like this so close to my home.”
Back at his truck, Davis drove to the first parking area and stopped at a wooden box to fill out a hunter survey.
“Even if they don’t bag any ducks, we want hunters to fill out a survey,” he said. “It tells us about hunter participation and success. As long as our success rate remains the same, we can continue to allow general access without a permit.”
Joe Fuller, the biologist who heads the Commission’s waterfowl program, has an office with Davis at the Commission’s Edenton facility. He said that overall, hunters should expect similar duck numbers to last year, but some changes to bag limits will please hunters.
“Pintail numbers are up, and they had good habitat conditions,” Fuller said. “We changed our harvest strategy to allows a 2-bird bag for pintails. If the population goes back down, we could be back down to one in the future.
“Scaup are up two percent, so we are right on the threshold for having the 2-bird bag the entire season. Last year, we had a 1-bird bag for part of the season and a 2-bird bag for part of the season. That should be good news for diving duck hunters, but scaup are hit or miss in North Carolina. We counted over 100,000 scaup two years ago, then last year’s count was one of our lowest. A lot of hunting success is based on our weather and weather in other places, which influences how many scaup we have here.”
All in all, waterfowl populations for most species are in pretty good shape. Some are up, some down, but long term, a lot of species are doing fairly well.
“Our dabbling duck numbers are largely centered around Lake Mattamuskeet in Hyde County,” Fuller said. “In our mid-winter survey, teal numbers have been going up for a number of years. Pintail numbers have fluctuated but gone up overall. Mallards and black ducks have declined over the long term on the coast, but mallards may be doing okay in other parts of the state.”
Fuller said gadwall populations are up over the long term. They are increasingly important to coastal impoundment hunters, while wigeon have been declining.
“Gadwall numbers have generally gone up over time in North Carolina,” he said. “Our gadwall count was very high last winter. It is a coastal oriented bird in our state. But wigeon concern us more than anything else. They are down over the long term. Even when prairies were extremely wet in the mid-90s, we did not see a big response out of wigeon like we did with almost all other species in the prairies. It’s very disconcerting, because they can be the bread-and-butter duck at some of our coastal impoundments and at private impoundments.”
The black duck is strictly an Atlantic Flyway bird, with most occurring from Virginia northward. Black duck numbers have never been counted or surveyed very well.
“Black duck long-term breeding population surveys only go back 15 years, and we have no real good data,” Fuller said. “The data we have show they are declining over the long term and have declined in North Carolina.”
Wood ducks are also difficult to count by conventional means. They don’t congregate in open water like many other puddle ducks.
“We don’t have any population surveys that count wood ducks,” Fuller said. “Banding studies over the last 20 years, combined with harvest rates, results in population models the USFWS puts together. The complicated harvest model spits out what is an allowable kill rate on wood ducks. We know the harvest does not exceed that, or we would experience a population decline.
“We had a 2-bird bag limit on wood ducks for a number of years because we had no way to determine if we could shoot more. When we went to three birds per day, we felt the modeling showed we could do that.”
Over the long term, the tundra swan population has increased, but there was a small decline four or five years ago.
“The tundra swan population appears to have stabilized,” Fuller said. “We follow a management plan cooperatively developed by the four flyway councils that says under what circumstances the number of permits can be increased or decreased. North Carolina is the No. 1 harvest state for eastern tundra swans. We issue 5,000 permits, and our harvest is around 2,500 birds — about half the number of permits we issue.”