Migration Alert: Winter Storm in the Dakotas Sends Waterfowl South

Dec. 7, 2017 – Central Flyway

Photo © Michael Furtman

By John Pollmann, WF360 Central Flyway Migration Editor

The winter storm that walloped portions of North and South Dakota earlier this week was the real deal, with snow, high winds and a precipitous drop in temperatures creating blizzard conditions across the northern plains. For the waterfowl remaining in those states, the return of winter weather was enough to send many of the birds south.

The morning after the storm, I stepped outside and immediately heard the sounds of migrating snow geese flying over in skies that were clear and largely calm. By that afternoon, the wind was blowing hard from the northwest, and a steady stream of mile-high, mile-long flocks of snow geese, interspersed with flocks of mallards, were moving south.

“The weather system was significant enough to get birds moving, both ahead of the front and behind it,” says Rocco Murano, waterfowl biologist for South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. “Dark geese, snow geese, and mallards are on the move.”

The observed migration lines up well with what hunters were seeing last weekend along the Missouri River in South Dakota, Nebraska, and western Iowa. Parts of central Nebraska also saw a push of birds ahead of the cold front.

“There was a good movement of ducks last weekend, and we definitely picked up mallards before the storm, but up to that point we still hadn’t seen a really big push,” explains Avery pro-staffer Doug Steinke. “I expect the ducks are going to arrive on the back side of this front.”

Steinke says that the colder temperatures this week are freezing shallow ponds, sending ducks and geese to the rivers.

Farther south, in Kansas, hunters are awaiting the arrival of more migrating waterfowl. Many of the ducks and geese currently in the state arrived with the first series of cold fronts that moved through Prairie Canada and the Dakotas in early November.

“We did see some dark geese and mallards moving into the local reservoirs ahead of this most recent winter weather system, but by and large we’re still waiting on another good push,” says Matt Farmer, public lands manager at Jamestown Wildlife Area.

Farmer says the majority of the ducks in the area are mallards, and they have become difficult to pattern.

“With the first split in the season just coming to a close, this weather system is probably hitting at just about the right time,” Farmer says. “We’re starting to see some ice on the shallow wetlands, which will help concentrate the birds, and I’m expecting that we’ll see some new birds arrive from the north.”

Jason Wagner, manager at Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area in central Kansas, agrees.

“We are still holding onto a lot of early-migrating species, like gadwalls, green-winged teal and shovelers; it just hasn’t been cold enough down here to push them out,” he says. “We do have some of the largest snow goose numbers I’ve ever seen at Cheyenne Bottoms, as well as decent numbers of white-fronted geese. We just haven’t seen a significant increase or change in our duck numbers since about the first week of November.”

The absence of mallards and Canada geese in the region means that field hunting has yet to really heat up, Wagner explains, but with no snow, adequate water conditions, and plenty of food resources, he believes that the best hunting is yet to come.

“The weather up north is hitting at the right time. We needed something to happen, so I’m hopeful that this change will be good when the season comes back in,” Wagner says.

Visit DU Migration Map for reports in your area.

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 2017-2018 waterfowl season.