Migration Alert: Central Flyway Mid-Winter Surveys Shed Light on Migration

Jan. 17, 2019 – Central Flyway

Photo © Michael Furtman

By John Pollmann, WF360 Central Flyway Migration Editor

Wildlife officials across the Central Flyway wrapped up their mid-winter surveys last week, providing a “big picture” look at how ducks and geese have reacted to a season’s worth of weather events, and the results won’t come as any surprise to those still working to put birds over the decoys in the final stages of their seasons; hunting conditions and bird concentrations are making things tough.

Though it is impossible to pinpoint the exact location of waterfowl, currently ducks and geese in the Central Flyway appear to be spread out from the top of the flyway to the bottom, and to make things even more difficult, water conditions in many areas have those ducks and geese dispersed as they take advantage of sheet water and more.

“We noticed during our surveys in Nebraska that it was difficult to really pinpoint how many birds are out there because there is open water in places where it normally isn’t found. This has the birds really spread out,” explains Mark Vrtiska, waterfowl program manager with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. “In fact, in the Scottsbluff area, I flew over some larger irrigation reservoirs that have never been ice free in all the years I’ve conducted the mid-winter survey, but they were open, and the birds were taking advantage of the open water. Every little irrigation canal in that area has some birds on it, too.”

Vrtiska says that Nebraska’s mid-winter counts may come in slightly below average, but again points to the unusual lack of snow and ice across the landscape allowing birds to spread out.

“I’m not sure if there is anything like a ‘normal’ year anymore,” he says. “Every winter is different.”

To the north, Mike Szymanski with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department says his staff observed roughly 100,000 Canada geese on the Missouri River along with a small number of mallards during this week’s count.

“We had really good numbers of Canada geese here from mid-November through much of December, but the winter storm that hit the day after Christmas sent a lot of those birds south,” Szymanski says.

That migration event translated into more geese at traditional stopping points along the Missouri River in South Dakota, according to that state’s head waterfowl biologist, Rocco Murano, but the numbers are far from extraordinary.

The survey of the Missouri River and eastern South Dakota produced around 80,000 Canada geese, with many of those being counted along the lower stretch of the river along the Nebraska border. This same area was also holding around 35,000 mallards.

Perhaps the most interesting and telling observation from this winter is the dispersion of mallards outfitted with GPS monitors, Murano says, which are tracked by a number of waterfowl biologists across the flyway.

“As of last week, these mallards were scattered from northeast Nebraska all the way down to northern Louisiana,” Murano says. “Missouri and Kansas have quite a few of these birds, but there is no pattern to their location. They are not concentrated in any one particular area or migration stopping point. The birds are just scattered everywhere like they were shot out of a shotgun, which is a reflection of the habitat conditions.”

A winter storm dropped up to a foot or more of snow across portions of Kansas and Missouri last weekend, which has changed conditions and bird concentrations since the mid-winter survey was conducted earlier in the week.

 Jason Wagner, area manager with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT) at Cheyenne Bottoms, says that at the time of the survey, the area was “loading up” with snow geese. He estimated that there were at least 250,000 birds in the Cheyenne Bottoms area. Statewide, the survey indicated roughly 1 million snow geese.

Last weekend’s winter weather in Kansas and Missouri coupled with another round of snow and cold this weekend could very well have these birds on the move, providing a glimmer of hope for hunters farther down the flyway during the final weeks of the season.

John Pollmann is a freelance writer from Dell Rapids, South Dakota, who is an avid waterfowler and conservationist. Pollmann will provide hunting and habitat reports for the Central and Mississippi Flyways throughout the 2018-2019 waterfowl season.