As the days shorten and grow colder, millions of swans, geese and ducks leave their northern breeding areas for more hospitable winter homes. The Chesapeake lies within a major migration route known as the Atlantic Flyway.

The shorelines and wetlands within the Bay watershed are the wintering ground for approximately one-third of all waterfowl that migrate along the Atlantic Flyway. The birds find abundant food such as underwater plants, aquatic invertebrates and fish that will get them through the cold weather.

Protecting and conserving these habitats are critical to the survival of wintering waterfowl. Those who think they cannot help in such a huge undertaking are wrong. Everyone can ensure the survival of waterfowl through the federal Duck Stamp program.

Initially, the Migratory Birds Hunting and Conservation Stamp, commonly known as the Duck Stamp, began as a revenue stamp. Waterfowl and other migratory bird hunters ages 16 and older are required to purchase the stamp, which sells for $15.

About $25 million is raised each year through this program, providing critical funding to conserve and protect wetland habitats in the National Wildlife Refuge system. Refuges offer unparalleled recreational opportunities, including hunting, fishing, bird watching and photography.

Today, these stamps are a vital tool for wetland conservation. Some people buy Duck Stamps to hunt waterfowl, others collect them. For nearly 80 years, hunters, wildlife watchers and millions of other people who purchase federal Duck Stamps have directly contributed to wildlife conservation through the protection of wetland habitats.

Ninety-eight cents out of every dollar generated by the sale of Duck Stamps goes directly to purchase or lease migratory bird habitat for inclusion in the National Wildlife Refuge System. Since 1934, federal Duck Stamp sales have raised more than $850 million, helping to purchase or lease 6 million acres of wildlife habitat on National Wildlife Refuges in nearly every state. 

Waterfowl are not the only wildlife to benefit from the sale of the federal Duck Stamps. Numerous other bird, mammal, fish, reptile and amphibian species that rely on wetland habitats have prospered. Further, an estimated one-third of the nation's endangered and threatened species find food or shelter in refuges established using Duck Stamp funds.

People, too, have benefited from the conservation of these lands. Hunters have places to enjoy their heritage and other outdoor enthusiasts have places to fish, hike, watch birds and photograph wildlife and natural landscapes — or just visit. These activities bring tourism dollars into many communities adjacent to refuges and provide critical support to local economies.

Protected wetlands help to purify water supplies. The plants act as buffers, reducing stream bank erosion during floods. Wetlands improve water quality by filtering runoff from the land. Wetlands also recharge aquifers and provide spawning areas for fish important to both sport and commercial fishermen.

Besides serving as a hunting license and a conservation tool, a current year's Duck Stamp also serves as an entrance pass for those National Wildlife Refuges where admission is normally charged.

Duck Stamps and products that bear the stamp images are also popular collector items. The beautiful stamps gain value over the years and are an important part of the United States' outdoor culture. Today, many states also issue their own duck stamps. In some states, the stamps are purely a collector's item, but in others, the stamps have a similar role in state hunting and conservation.

Each year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sponsors a stamp design contest. Wildlife artists from across the nation submit their work for judging by a panel of artists and wildlife experts. The winning art is used on the next year's stamp. After the winning design has been selected, the artwork is submitted to the U.S. Postal Service, which produces the stamp.

This year, Robert Steiner, an artist from San Francisco, won the 2012 federal Duck Stamp Art Contest. Steiner's acrylic painting of a common goldeneye will be made into the 2013-2014 Federal Duck Stamp, which will go on sale in late June 2013. Eligible species for this year's contest were the brant, Canada goose, common goldeneye, northern shoveler and ruddy duck.

In 1989, the first Junior Duck Stamps were produced. The Junior Duck Stamp program teaches students conservation through the arts. Revenue generated by the sales of Junior Duck Stamps funds environmental education programs in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and two territories (American Samoa and the Virgin Islands).

Both federal Duck Stamps ($15) and Junior Duck Stamps ($5) are sold in many post offices across the country. Federal Duck Stamps can be purchased at many national wildlife refuges, post offices, sporting goods and outdoor stores or at www.fws.gov/duckstamps/stamps.htm.

Common Goldeneye

Here are some facts about this year's winning waterfowl species — the common goldeneye.

  • A female often lays eggs in the nest of another female, especially in nest boxes. She may lay in the nests of other species of ducks as well.
  • After the ducklings leave the nest, they can feed themselves. Some females abandon their broods soon after hatching, and the young will join another female's brood. Such mixed broods, known as creches, may also occur when a female loses after a territorial fight with another female. Young scatter and not all of them get back to their mother.
  • The eyes of a common goldeneye are gray-brown at hatching. They turn purple-blue, then blue, then green-blue as they age. By the time goldeneyes are 5 months old, their eyes have become clear pale green-yellow. The eyes are bright yellow in adult males and pale yellow to white in females
  • In inland areas during the summer and fall, they feed on aquatic insects, crustaceans and aquatic plants. Along coastal wintering grounds, they feed largely on crustaceans, mollusks, small fishes and some plant material.