Late Winter Habitat Conditions in Canada

March Habitat Conditions from DU Canada

Summary

Conditions are variable in the British Columbia/Western Boreal Forest Region, where coastal habitats are in excellent shape. Runoff predictions range from well below normal in northern Alberta, to above normal in northern Manitoba. Despite recent snowfall, it has been unusually warm and dry in the Prairie Region. As of mid February, most of Alberta had 0-5 cm of snow on the ground. Saskatchewan and
Manitoba have had similar accumulations, but are faring better thanks to conditions in the fall. Conditions are good in most of the Eastern Region, which has been unseasonably warm. Québec and Atlantic Canada have had more rain than usual, and an early migration is anticipated in Ontario.

British Columbia / Western Boreal Forest

BRITISH COLUMBIA

Cold temperatures continue to hit the coast periodically, resulting in fluctuations between snow and rain with moderate temperatures. Higher elevations continue to get snow, and the snowpack is about normal along the south coast and on Vancouver Island. Early-migrating songbirds can be seen in the region, and wintering waterfowl are building reserves in preparation for the upcoming migration and breeding season. As cover crops become depleted, many ducks, geese and swans will move to perennial forage fields. Estuaries continue to be an important source of food and shelter.

Snow conditions are variable in the northern Interior, but have generally been average or better. In many locations, good snowpack indicates that wetlands will be full or recharged in the spring.

In the southern Interior, winter precipitation has been below average at low and moderate elevations in prime waterfowl areas. Temperatures have been mild, and several thawing events have reduced snow cover even further. Given how dry wetlands were in the fall, spring habitat conditions are expected to be fair at best.

Snow conditions in the southeast Interior are about average.

Despite some recent snowfall in the Peace region, accumulated precipitation (since September 1) has been 60-85 per cent of normal in northern areas and less than 60 per cent of normal in southern areas. The lack of snow has been exacerbated by mild temperatures and high winds that either sublimated or melted the snow on the ground, leaving very little moisture for spring runoff. However, these conditions will be offset somewhat by the fact that semi-permanent wetlands were in good condition in the fall, and there should be good residual vegetative cover for early nesters next spring.

WESTERN BOREAL FOREST

Snowpack has been average in the Yukon, although precipitation has generally been lower than normal since December. It has been a mild winter overall, with only two weeks of notably-cold weather. There is a fair amount of overflow on creeks.

In the Northwest Territories, the snowpack has been normal. However, February precipitation did little to add to snow accumulations. Runoff should be normal this spring. 

Much of Northern Alberta got little-to-no precipitation through February. Although a recent snowfall event left a few inches on the ground, the winter has generally been warm and dry. Spring runoff should be below normal to well below normal in most areas.

Snowpack in northern Saskatchewan is normal to slightly above normal. Periodic melting has occurred throughout the winter, with milder-than-normal weather. According to the Saskatchewan Watershed Authority, spring runoff should be near normal in the far north and below normal into the Boreal Transition Zone (BTZ).

The Saskatchewan River Delta has experienced well-above-average temperatures and has 39 cm of snow on the ground, which is 6 cm higher than the average for this time of year.

Spring runoff is expected to be near normal to above normal in portions of the north Interlake and The Pas region of Northern Manitoba. The forecast notes that significant spring precipitation could result in localized flooding in The Pas area, where soil conditions are above average and snowfall has been significant.

Prairie Canada

ALBERTA

In stark contrast to the cold and snowy winter of last year, winter has continued to be warm and dry. In late February, a winter storm brought cold temperatures and snow to much of the agricultural zone. 

Despite more recent precipitation, the warm, dry trend (which began in August 2011) is forecast to continue into March.

Precipitation totals for the winter (November 1 to present) remain below normal across the agricultural zone. In the Prairies, precipitation totals vary from less than 40 to 60 per cent of normal. These dry conditions are reflected by reports of landowners having no troubles pounding fence posts all winter. A similar precipitation pattern continues into the Aspen Parkland and the BTZ. Precipitation totals are
slightly higher in the Peace Parkland, at 60-85 per cent of normal.

Recent snowfall increased snow accumulations throughout the province. The snow is generally dry and loose, with low moisture content, making it more prone to sublimation. There has been some drifting into ditches, wetlands and sheltered areas, which will help recharge wetland basins when the spring melt occurs.

In mid February, there was only 0-5 cm of snow on the ground in most areas. After the late-February storm, snow cover ranged from 5-15 cm in the BTZ, Prairie and the eastern Parkland, to 15-20 cm in the southern Peace Parkland, to 20-30 cm in the western Aspen Parkland and northern Peace Parkland. Alberta Environment reports average to above average snowpack in the southern mountains, which supply the southern irrigation districts.

Prospects for spring runoff are poor in the Prairie, Aspen Parkland and BTZ due to dry conditions at freeze-up and well-below-average winter precipitation. As a result of somewhat higher snow accumulations in the Peace Parkland, there may be a fair runoff there, and a rapid spring melt would enhance this potential.

The period from October to March is typically the dry season in Alberta. Conditions can quickly improve with a late season, wet snowfall and early spring rains.

Paired Canada geese were dispersing into the southern Prairie in mid February, while flocked Canada geese and mallards were also observed feeding in fields. Typically, Canada geese don't start moving into the Aspen Parkland until the first week of March.

SASKATCHEWAN

This winter has been unusually warm, with little-to-no snow. Accumulated precipitation amounts range from 1-5 cm, which is well below normal for most areas. Temperatures have been well above normal in the southern half of the province, where some days have reached above 0 C throughout the winter.

In late February, a winter storm brought some snow, particularly to the Thickwood Hills area of the northwest. However, most of the province has very little snow cover; until last week, most of the Missouri Coteau was brown. Daytime temperatures are predicted to be above 0 C in early March, which will likely cause some melting.

Overall, the outlook for runoff from snow-melt is below average for the entire province. However, most wetlands were in good-to-excellent shape going into fall due to above-average rains during the summers of 2010 and 2011. The province will either need some spring snow events or rain to maintain good wetland conditions.

No migrating waterfowl have been reported to date, but Canada Geese usually start arriving around the middle of March.

MANITOBA

Abnormal weather patterns have continued, which does not bode well for seasonal wetlands in the Virden and Killarney landscapes. Most of the main breeding areas still have a poor snowpack, and snow events (although more frequent in late February) have not resulted in significant accumulations. Temperatures continue to be above average, while snowfall is below average overall, despite a recent storm event.

In contrast to the dramatic effect this prolonged dry spell has had on seasonal basins, deeper temporary basins in the more rolling topography of the province are less affected by annual variations. They are still benefiting from last spring's wet conditions and remain flooded into their vegetation bands. Any snow blowing off fields is being trapped by cattails and other vegetation of these basins. It is these more-permanent basins that remain in favourable condition and they will make up the majority of settling areas for spring migrants if precipitation patterns do not change.

Soil moisture conditions beyond the immediate surface appear to remain moist. This will allow for wetlands conditions to quickly improve should we receive a modest amount of snowfall or spring rain over the next month.

Eastern Region

ONTARIO

Winter has been significantly warmer than usual this year, but snowfall and cooler weather occurred throughout southern Ontario in late February. Northern Ontario has had near-normal snowfall and snowpack, and has been just slightly warmer than normal. All northern rivers, lakes and wetlands still have ice cover, while some sections of central rivers are open, and southern Ontario has semi-open wetlands and completely ice-free coastal zones. Much of the south had a relatively poor frost seal, and many southwest tile drains continued to flow for much of the winter.

Wetlands are at capacity throughout the province, and are flowing freely in the south. Although there is a thin layer of snow on the ground in southern Ontario, it is expected to melt in early March. If spring rainfall is adequate, good spring habitat will be maintained. However, if dry conditions are prevalent, seasonal pairing habitats will be limited and fair breeding prospects are anticipated.

As has been the case all winter, the Lower Great Lakes have not had significant ice buildup, and a significant number of waterfowl remained as a result. Tundra swans have been seen in significant numbers, moving north from the lakes. An early migration is anticipated.

QUÉBEC

Similar to January, February was unseasonably warm throughout the province. Temperature anomalies were around 3 C higher than average, especially in the Eastern Townships, which reached 4 C above the norm.

Total precipitation levels have been roughly 60 per cent lower than usual. Snowfall followed the same trend. Although snow was on the ground for a near-normal period of time, its average thickness was barely half the norm, mainly because there were 50 per cent more thawing events than usual this year. February was also rainier than usual. At the end of February, the snowpack was 50 per cent lower than normal.

The mean water level for the St. Lawrence River, as measured at the Sorel Station, is close to normal (4.6 m) and is much higher than it was in 2011 (3.8 m).

Overall, habitat conditions remain good. The St. Lawrence channel is ice free in some parts, which is slightly earlier than normal. Cold temperatures and more snowfall will maintain good conditions for the spring season.

ATLANTIC CANADA

The winter has been unusually warm and dry. Temperatures reached above 0 C several times in February, and much of the region's winter precipitation has fallen as rain.

Maple sap is running in parts of Nova Scotia, where wetlands in southern areas are already opening. Mild days have been followed by cold ones, resulting in a layer of ice blanketing the ground, but this is melting.

Until recently, southern New Brunswick did not have continuous ground cover. The southern half of the province has had less than 50 per cent its normal water equivalency (a measure of the amount of water within the snowpack).

Although the Saint John River may be lower than usual this year, a deeper frost penetration has formed due to the lack of insulating snow. These conditions can lead to faster runoff and less ground seepage, which could increase flooding intensity. So, although there is less water available to flood the basin, it may occur over a shorter period of time than usual. This could lead to an average inundation, which could create seasonally-flooded shallow-water feeding opportunities attractive to migrant waterfowl and early breeders. That said, lower water levels may decrease food availability for stagers, and could force activity to permanently flooded wetlands.

Mild temperatures and regular rains have created more open water areas, although the ice in non-moving waters is thicker than usual. Many waterfowl have been observed taking advantage of open water and bare crop fields, and the number of winter mallard sightings are quite high. Wetlands are expected to remain frozen for a while yet, due to their thickness (> 1 ft). Depending on spring weather, it may be a later thaw then normal despite warmer winter temperatures.

Though the freshet volume will likely be lower than normal this year, most impoundments (wetlands that are constructed using ring dikes, so they rely on precipitation or flooding to fill them) will continue to operate at normal spring water levels. Overall, habitat conditions are good in Atlantic Canada.