By John Pollmann, WF360 Central Flyway Migration Editor
Hunters in the northern reaches of the Central and Mississippi Flyways have been waiting for a weather system to trigger a migration of birds out of Canada, and it appears that a significant cold front bearing down on the region may do just that by the end of this weekend. But questions remain about the impact this weather system will have on waterfowl numbers in the Dakotas.
The heart of the storm, which is expected to bring several inches of snow and blizzard conditions to parts of the Dakotas, will arrive Thursday night and continue through Friday. The area of greatest snowfall will extend from central South Dakota into southeastern North Dakota and Minnesota.
The storm is expected to miss much of North Dakota and Prairie Canada, where waterfowl numbers remain at very high levels. So far this fall, mild temperatures, excellent wetland conditions, and an abundance of waste grain in partially flooded fields have given ducks and geese little cause to head south.
Following the upcoming frontal passage, however, temperatures in southern portions of Saskatchewan and Manitoba are predicted to fall well below freezing for several days. Avery pro-staffer Brody Edmondson of Winnipeg, Manitoba, believes that this will be enough to freeze much of the shallow-water habitat being used by many waterfowl.
"I don't think we'll lose the big water quite yet, but I think those areas of flooded crops will probably freeze in the next week," Edmondson says. "That will put birds on the move, for sure, but where they will stop—that's the big question."
Edmondson says that at this time of year ducks and geese are fueling up for their migration south, so the birds are seeking high-energy food sources, especially corn.
"We have limited acres of corn available right now, so even if some birds do not move out of Canada with this round of cold weather, they probably won't hang around long before they head south to the Dakotas," he says.
Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird management supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, isn't certain that his state will pick up a substantial number of new birds, given that so much food remains north of the border in Canada.
"With very little or no snow predicted to fall up there, I just don't know if we'll see a big push of birds after this storm rolls through," he says. "Some hunters could see a bunch of birds show up, while others will keep waiting."
Szymanski considers the current waterfowl season "one of the slower ones" he has experienced in North Dakota, although strong numbers of snow geese are now staging across the state.
Regardless of what happens north of the border, Szymanski says the cold front will provide a welcome change in the weather, which may alter the resting and feeding habitat of ducks and geese in the state. That's something that hunters in South Dakota will also appreciate.
"It's been a very slow migration this year through South Dakota, especially for mallards, because the weather has been so mild," explains Rocco Murano with the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks. "This storm is going to shake things up a bit."
Although the snow is expected to miss areas to his north, Murano remains confident that South Dakota hunters will see new birds in the sky by the weekend. "It's time. Those birds still up in Canada have to get moving at some point," Murano says. "I think we can expect to see a significant migration of birds."
Hunters farther down the flyway can expect to see an influx of waterfowl as well, Murano adds, as freezing temperatures lock up smaller water bodies in South Dakota, forcing species that feed in shallow wetlands to move south.
"Smaller ducks, divers, swans—I think they'll all be moving out as quickly as they can," he says.
Not all waterfowl will move south, however. Murano expects to see the Missouri River corridor pick up birds, while ducks and geese will also stack up on the state's larger lakes. How long they remain will be determined by just how much snow falls and how many nights the temperatures plunge well below the freezing mark.
In the end, there are a number of scenarios that may play out in the coming days for hunters in the Dakotas and points south. The best-case scenario for hunters in central and southern states would of course be a "grand passage" of ducks and geese out of the breeding grounds on the backside of the cold front this weekend.
"I don't think that's out of the question," Murano says. "If there isn't too much snow blowing around on Saturday, we may just be able to see skies full of ducks and geese heading south."
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 2016-2017 waterfowl season.