Waterfowl Respond as Arctic Air Sweeps Across the Plains

Migration Alert: Dec. 15, 2016 – Central Flyway

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Photo © Michael Furtman

By John Pollmann, WF360 Central Flyway Migration Editor

Brutally cold temperatures and snow continue to impact the northern reaches of the Central and Mississippi Flyways, which is pushing ducks and geese south toward their wintering grounds.  Bird numbers remain high, however, in mid-latitude states, leaving hunters in the south wondering if this next blast of winter will be enough to produce a significant migration event.

At the top of the Central Flyway, a series of significant snow storms coupled with extremely cold temperatures and heavy winds in North Dakota has helped empty that state of all but the hardiest waterfowl, with those birds using what open water remains on the Missouri River near Bismarck.

South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks (SDGFP) biologist Scott Stolz noticed flocks of Canada geese migrating south along the Missouri River channel this week when he conducted the most recent aerial waterfowl survey.

The number of large Canada geese increased significantly in the Pierre area, Stolz says, with close to 200,000 birds using the Missouri River in the central part of the state.

"That's the most we've seen around here in quite a few years," Stolz says.

The previous SDGFP waterfowl survey indicated roughly 233,000 mallards on the Missouri River, but Stolz says that number appears to have decreased by half this week.  Another winter storm is forecasted to drop more snow along portions of the Missouri River this weekend, and much of the state is set to see some of the coldest nighttime lows in decades, with temperatures reaching -20s in places – all of which could help continue to push ducks and geese south.

Nebraska waterfowl hunters have already seen an increase in the past week in the number of waterfowl, particularly Canada geese.  Mark Vrtiska, waterfowl program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, says that the birds are shifting into wintering habitats and behaviors across the state.

"We're reaping the benefits of the weather in the Dakotas," Vrtiska says.  "The field hunting opportunities have increased, especially for Canada geese, and I think that the hunting should remain consistent as we move forward."

The hunting along the Platte River in western Nebraska has improved since the slow start to the season, says Avery Pro Staffer Ross Juelfs, who says he noticed a large push of birds into the area with this week's full moon.

"This is probably the most mallards that I've seen out here in a long, long time," Juelfs says, "and we have just a ton of Canada geese."

Juelfs says that the below-zero temperatures forecasted for western Nebraska this weekend will likely push birds off the Platte River, as slush and ice clog the river channel.

"I'm sure we'll see birds move to warm water streams and ponds, but the cold that is coming is a game changer on the river," Juelfs says.

The cold could also impact waterfowl numbers in Kansas, says Tom Bidrowski, migratory game bird specialist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

"We're already seeing both ducks and geese shifting to their wintering habitats in the state – the big reservoirs and rivers – where they can find open water," Bidrowski says.  "Whether they stay is really dependent upon how long it takes for us to come out of this cold snap."

Bidrowski says that there are good numbers of Canada geese, snow geese, and mallards in the state, though most of the smaller puddle and diving duck species have moved south.

"We do not have a lot of snow cover, so if things warm up enough in time, the hunting could be really good," Bidrowski says.  "But if not, many of the ducks and geese could move out of here."

It's the same story in Missouri, where large numbers of mallards were recorded this week by state game officials.

According to the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), just over 1.1 million ducks can be found at publicly managed properties in the state, a figure that ranks above the long-term average for this time of the year.  According to the MDC report, however, the migration of birds into the state this year has been slow.

Freezing temperatures this weekend now threaten to push these birds out, says Tony Vandemore at Habitat Flats in north-central Missouri, so managing the pressure on the birds becomes almost as important as providing a source of open water and food.  Still, sometimes Mother Nature wins.

"We'll have to start looking at bigger water bodies, maybe hunting dry fields for mallards, but I'm not sure if we'll be able to keep the birds around here," Vandemore says.

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.