Virginia DU Habitat Work Benefitting Waterfowl and Hunters

by Chris McCotter

The entire Chesapeake Bay watershed is vital to waterfowl transiting the Atlantic Flyway, providing important migration and wintering areas for many of North America’s ducks and geese, such as American black ducks, mallards, scaup, canvasbacks, Canada geese and many more species. 

These birds need diverse wetlands, clean water, sanctuary, abundant aquatic vegetation and other food sources. Preserving and enhancing waterfowl habitat is the top priority for Ducks Unlimited and the Virginia State Chapter is a recognized national leader when it comes to delivering the resources to make projects happen, both locally and wherever waterfowl needs are greatest.

Ethan Massey, DU’s regional biologist for Virginia, said DU and its partners, including the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), continue to implement important habitat projects in Virginia. These projects contribute to the 74,541 acres of wetlands restored and enhanced in Virginia in recent decades.

The Hog Island Wildlife Management Area (WMA) Breakwater Project helps protect DU’s past wetland improvements at this important and popular WMA, which encompasses a 3,900-acre peninsula along the James River, Massey said. Seven rip-rap breakwaters were installed with sand tombolos backfilled along the shoreline, an area that will become increasingly “marshy” in upcoming years. To reduce sediment flowing into the James River, buffer strips were planted and established in adjacent agricultural areas. 

Finished last winter, an enhancement project at the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) helped improve 3,526 acres of forested wetlands. As Massey notes, the swamp’s wetlands have suffered since colonial times as people ditched and manipulated the land in efforts to attain dry ground. 

The improvements involved the construction of a spillway across a dike to allow more “hydrologic connectivity” across the forest. In other words, DU has helped the swamp behave more like a swamp. 

Additional improvements included the addition of water-control structures in other parts of the forest to improve flow between sections of the swamp. 

DU, working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, also enhanced 609 acres of wetlands within managed impoundments on the refuge in Virginia Beach. Wholly managed by DU from start to finish, this project improved refuge canals and installed a pump station and water-control structures to expand habitat management capabilities and water delivery throughout the wetlands. 

Additional work to benefit shorebirds, wading birds and waterfowl was recently completed on 993 acres of wetlands at Chincoteague NWR in Accomack County. And, if expected funding becomes available, the Mattaponi WMA in Caroline County is slated to see improvements designed to benefit that area’s wetlands and enhance opportunities for waterfowl hunters.

“In addition to wetland restoration and enhancement, DU also works to permanently preserve important habitats,” said Jake McPherson, DU’s director of development for the Mid-Atlantic region. “In fact, many of Virginia’s Wildlife Management Areas were acquired in part with support from DU. To name a few, DU has assisted DWR in acquiring lands at the Ware Creek, Mattaponi, Doe Creek, Saxis and Guinea Marsh WMAs among others. These lands are important not only as waterfowl habitat, but they also offer important recreational opportunities such as public hunting for DU supporters and other stakeholders.”

From Big to Small

Beneficial habitat work doesn’t always take place on such a grand scale though. State Chairman Max Finazzo, a 20-year DU member and volunteer, explains DU’s Virginia volunteers partner with a variety of state agencies as well as the military. 

“Several years ago, the Pentagon chapter installed a handicap accessible blind at Quantico,” Finazzo said, adding that DU volunteers assist in annual stream cleanups and work with youth groups, including high school chapters and Boy Scout troops to install and maintain hundreds of wood duck boxes at places like Belle Isle and Mason Neck State Parks and smaller locations spanning the entire state. The Fredericksburg chapter also worked with the DWR to locate and band more than 300 geese.

Across these projects, big and small, funding is what powers DU’s conservation machine. Virginia delivers – big time – when it comes to raising money for wetlands improvements. 

Finazzo said more than $2 million was raised in Virginia over the last year via chapter banquets and special events, with 82 cents of every dollar raised going directly into habitat projects. As of 2021, some $19.4 million has been invested in DU-related Virginia wetland conservation and restoration projects.

One of the state’s signature events is an annual beef and crab feast, held in Fredericksburg and hosted by the local chapter. Chapter Chairman Daniel Hudson notes that it is the largest event Virginia DU hosts and it’s typically attended by more than 500 people. The feast has raised millions of dollars over the years and gave the Fredericksburg chapter the distinction of being the first in Virginia DU history to bring in more than $100,000 during a single event.

“There are approximately 100 or more events ( in Virginia in any given year,” Finazzo said. “The Richmond chapter also has a long history and raises more than a quarter million dollars a year through multiple events.

“Our success is our breadth,” Finazzo added, explaining, “We have events 12 months a year throughout the state from Northern Virginia to the Eastern Shore to Tidewater to the Shenandoah Valley and many places in-between.”

Upcoming events include an action-packed weekend at Green Top Sporting Goods in Ashland, Virginia. The Virginia State Duck and Goose Calling Contest is held on the morning of Oct. 1, followed that evening with an Oyster Roast and Raffle. 

The last couple of years have been challenging for nonprofit organizations as the COVID pandemic required many “live” events to be halted or scaled back, but DU has prevailed in typical fashion. 

“Conservation projects planned years in advance were still accomplished during COVID,” Finazzo said.  “The amount of pressure on our volunteers was tremendous as we needed critical funding to keep those efforts moving. I likened it to keeping the engine running during COVID. The result as events returned to regularly scheduling was our best year ever for fundraising in Virginia.”

Hudson said the pandemic created challenges, but his chapter’s planning committees creatively arranged scaled-back “live” events as well as virtual events, raffles and auctions. 

“It was a true team effort to continue the mission and to meet the goals of our organization,” Hudson said.

Work, but Fun Work

Finazzo says DU’s mix of dedicated volunteers teamed with skilled professional biologists and habitat managers is what makes the organization so successful. 

“As a volunteer, I leave the dirt moving and assessment of success to our scientifically trained and focused professional staff,” he said. “They seek our input when needed and give regular presentations to our volunteers about completed, ongoing and upcoming projects and priorities.”

In the end, though, Finazzo said volunteers do the heavy lifting through their fundraising. 

“All of our fundraising is done through volunteers,” Finazzo said. “It’s work, but fun work and we have volunteers all over the state who have been volunteering for 10, 20, or 30 or more years. Our volunteers are committed to a better environment and that is an enjoyable and admirable group of people to spend time with. Friends – lifelong friends – are made alongside our efforts.”

Finazzo encourages anyone interested in Virginia DU to visit the state chapters Facebook page ( or website ( to learn more.

For anyone questioning why engagement and involvement is important, even if he or she might not be a waterfowl hunter, Finazzo offers a simple answer: “Clean water.” He notes that few, if any, nonprofit organizations in the United States have DU’s level of positive impact on water systems, including filtration, storm mitigation and promotion of balanced aquatic habitat. 

“DU’s focus is waterfowl, but our work benefits a lot more in the Mid-Atlantic, including fish, shorebirds, and aquatic vegetation critical to a healthy Chesapeake Bay,” Finazzo said. 

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