Last Christmas Eve, I conned a friend from Pennsylvania into joining me for a day of birdwatching at Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge in Maryland. We had the refuge and its wintering waterfowl to ourselves that chilly day. Even the planes from Baltimore-Washington International Airport, across the Bay, weren’t flying overhead. The only sound was the distinctive whir of wind through tundra swan wings.

Although we didn’t add any new birds to our life lists, thousands of ducks, geese and swans entertained us. Just the day before, more than 19,000 waterfowl had been counted on the refuge’s 2,285 acres: More than a thousand each of American widgeon, Canada goose, and tundra swan graced Eastern Neck’s open water and wetland coves. Three thousand canvasbacks and hundreds of northern pintails, mallards, American black ducks, gadwalls, buffleheads, and American coots foraged for vegetation and invertebrates.

Christmas Eve 1998 wasn’t unusual; thousands of waterfowl can be viewed at Eastern Neck and many other sites throughout Chesapeake Bay from October through March. Unfortunately, what we consider a spectacular view today, with nearly a million ducks visiting the Bay each winter, is only a fraction of what the Bay used to support.

Waterfowl declined sharply since the middle of the century, when surveys began. But even those midcentury numbers were dramatically reduced from the huge flocks settlers described in the region before the large commercial hunts of the late 1800s and the loss of habitat in more recent decades took their toll. Seventeenth century explorer George Alsop reported that when he pushed his boat into huge flocks that blanketed areas of the Bay, the birds rose with such a noise “that it was as if we were all the time surrounded by a whirlwind.”

Chesapeake waterfowl populations bottomed out in the 1980s, having declined nearly 80 percent from mid-1950s levels. Despite such serious declines in many waterfowl populations, the Chesapeake and its tributaries are still recognized as important for many species — about a third of all waterfowl on the Atlantic flyway spend the winter here. In recent years, many efforts have been launched throughout the region to preserve, and rebuild, habitat.

Early indicators are providing signs of success: The number of waterfowl wintering on Chesapeake Bay, with a few exceptions, is increasing — in many cases dramatically. But not all species have benefited equally: Waterfowl that visit the Bay in winter tend to be faring better than those that breed here.

And, for winter visiters, the condition of the Bay is not the whole story. Many waterfowl species that depend on the Chesapeake for food and rest during the winter breed far to the north in Canadian tundra wetlands and the forested and coastal wetlands of the Northeastern United States, and the prairie potholes of the Northcentral United States and Canada.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service breeding ground surveys in those areas suggest the near future may be even brighter. The surveys found that conditions were excellent in 1999 for breeding waterfowl populations. An early, warm spring and good amounts of precipitation created numerous ponds and spurred the growth of vegetation used for nesting cover.

Surveys conducted in the Northcentral United States and Canada showed that the population of breeding ducks rose by 11 percent since 1998. Even in the Eastern areas of Canada and the United States, where the weather was drier, breeding populations of American widgeon, ring-necked duck and goldeneye rose substantially. The USF&WS projects that, nationwide, 105 million ducks will migrate south this fall, dwarfing last year’s flight of 84 million ducks.

This should mean that this fall’s migration will be the largest since surveys began in 1955. Although weather is the greatest determinant of breeding habitat conditions and short-term population changes, the USF&WS attributes some of the improved waterfowl population numbers to wetlands restoration and conservation measures.

Hunters benefited from recent increases in duck populations, with a 4 percent increase in waterfowl harvest during the 1998-99 season. After a three-year moratorium on migratory Canada goose hunting in the Atlantic Flyway states, the USF&WS is permitting a very limited Canada goose season on the Atlantic Flyway this year, thanks to the better breeding conditions to the North. Some states, including Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania, will postpone the hunting of Canada geese for at least another year, though, to encourage even more growth in the breeding population.

But not all species are benefiting. While most waterfowl use the Bay as a wintertime haven, a few species use the Chesapeake region as a breeding area: American black duck, mallard, wood duck, and even a few common and hooded mergansers. These summer residents, like their overwintering cousins, require wetlands, forests and relatively clear water for food and cover. Most of the watershed’s breeding waterfowl, with the exception of some mallards, need wetlands with little human disturbance to successfully rear young.

Surveys of waterfowl breeding in the entire Bay watershed are not regularly conducted, although state breeding bird surveys suggest that numbers for all species, except mallards, are far below breeding populations of the past. Overharvesting played an important role in reducing waterfowl populations in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but most experts consider habitat loss a major reason for declines in waterfowl during the last half century.

Forests that once covered 95 percent of the Chesapeake Bay watershed now cover less than 60 percent of the basin and large tracts have been fragmented by development and agriculture. The loss of wetlands is harder to document. Although evidence suggests that estuarine wetland coverage has declined little in the past two decades, the Bay Program estimates that freshwater wetlands may be declining at a rate of about 2,800 acres per year.

Record low waterfowl numbers in 1985 spurred the United States and Canada to develop and sign the “North American Waterfowl Management Plan,” which advocates habitat protection, restoration and enhancement. Mexico joined this international effort in 1994, when the plan was updated. The latest 1998 plan update, “Expanding the Vision,” calls for expanded monitoring, waterfowl conservation across landscapes, and greater collaboration among local communities and regional governments.

Two joint ventures, which are part of the management plan, affect Chesapeake Bay waterfowl. The “Atlantic Coast Habitat Joint Venture” and the “Black Duck Joint Venture” ensure cooperation among the many communities, governments, nonprofits and private organizations.

American black ducks are a good example of a species in decline because of habitat loss. Michael Haramis, a wildlife biologist with the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, says dabbling ducks, like black ducks, feed on underwater vegetation and invertebrates, and especially need Bay grasses to raise young.

Historically, Haramis notes, the Bay supported a large breeding population of black ducks that were dependent on underwater widgeon grass and eelgrass meadows. They bred on islands, where they were protected from predators. Today, those vast expanses of Bay grass beds are greatly reduced and many of the islands have eroded away or been submerged by sea level rise. And, black duck numbers have dramatically declined.

The Chesapeake Bay Program committed to improving the Bay’s waterfowl population numbers in their “1990 Chesapeake Bay Waterfowl Policy and Management Plan.” A key component of the plan is the protection and restoration of habitats used by waterfowl.

Habitat preservation probably won’t increase numbers, but is necessary to at least hang onto the numbers that currently migrate to and nest on the Bay,” said Doug Forsell, an ornithologist with the USF&WS Chesapeake Bay Field Office and chair of the Bay Program’s Waterfowl and Other Waterbirds Workgroup. “Restoration of degraded habitats is needed to support greater numbers, though it may be difficult to overcome the loss of wetlands and islands to shoreline erosion and development.”

Preserving what’s left and restoring some of the habitat that has been destroyed is important because many parts of the Bay and its watershed are widely recognized as critical habitat.

The “Atlantic Coast Joint Venture” identifies several regions as important to waterfowl: the Susquehanna River Lowlands in Pennsylvania; Maryland’s Blackwater and Nanticoke River marshes; and the Lower Eastern Shore marshes in Maryland and Virginia.

Also, the American Bird Conservancy, in cooperation with the National Audubon Society, are coordinating an “Important Bird Areas (IBAs) Program,” which identifies regions that provide essential breeding, wintering and migrating habitat for birds. According to Daphne Gemmill, volunteer coordinator for Maryland’s IBAs, the Audubon Naturalist Society, with support from the Maryland Ornithological Society and other local organizations, has identified areas that meet state, regional, continental and globally significant criteria.

Fifteen species of Bay birds meet the criteria for “globally significant,” because the Bay hosts at least 1 percent of the global population. The globally significant waterfowl on Chesapeake Bay are tundra swan, Canada goose, canvasback, goldeneye, bufflehead, oldsquaw, Eastern black scoter, surf scoter, white-winged scoter, and red-breasted merganser.

This winter, my bird-watching friend and I will be taking advantage of my new-found knowledge of the watershed’s refuges, preserves and restored wetlands. It will be easy to see large flocks of Canada geese and tundra swans and canvasbacks. Early in the season, the coves usually host huge rafts of ruddy ducks, and we should be able to spot mergansers on the open water. Dabbling ducks, like black ducks, gadwall, pintails, shovelers, American wigeons and redheads will require a bit more stealth. They like to feed on underwater vegetation and invertebrates that grow and live in protected wetlands. So, we’ll have to sneak up on them, be quiet and wait patiently, all the while taking care not to disturb them. As we look through our scopes at the diving ducks that feed on fish and mollusks, we’ll be searching the deeper water for greater and lesser scaups and buffleheads and — farther out — sea ducks, like oldsquaws and scoters. Maybe we’ll visit Virginia’s New Point Comfort and get to add that rather uncommon “common scoter” to our life lists.

To enjoy the Bay’s winter visitors, dress warm, wear waterproof boots, bring binoculars and a field guide and head for the Bay’s rivers, wetlands and open water. You can often view waterfowl from the warmth of your car at many of the Bay’s public refuges and parks, where roads circle around or pass by coves and lookouts.