Last weekend’s winter storm had waterfowl on the move across the upper reaches of the Central Flyway, where hunting seasons are winding down in some states. Here’s a look at what folks are seeing on the ground.
The Missouri River in South Dakota can hold tremendous numbers of Canada geese and mallards during the month of December, but those large concentrations of birds have not materialized this season. The current count estimated by the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department totaled approximately 32,000 Canada geese and just shy of 30,000 mallards on the lower stretches of the river, with smaller numbers of geese above the Oahe Dam near Pierre. Both duck and goose numbers decrease downstream from Pierre toward Chamberlain as ice levels increase.
In Nebraska, waterfowl hunters were enjoying one of their best seasons in recent memory until an early December warm-up and full moon pushed birds into a nocturnal feeding pattern and allowed them to spread out, reports professional photographer Doug Steinke.
“The cool down last weekend helped, but now we’re looking at another round of warm temperatures in the coming days that is going to open water back up again, even in the Rainwater Basin,” Steinke says. “We still have good duck numbers here and the goose numbers in western Nebraska are really good, but I think the concentrations have dissipated. There are pockets of birds spread out all over the place.”
Last weekend’s winter weather system dumped up to four inches of snow in northern Missouri. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, this resulted in a “significant drop” in duck numbers on state and federal waterfowl areas, from around 500,000 birds to just over 400,000, which is less than half of the five-year average for this time of the year.
Duck numbers at several important public hunting areas in the northern part of the state fluctuated over the weekend, including a massive drop at Nodaway Valley Conservation Area (from 31,000 to around 800 ducks) and a marked increase at Fountain Grove Conservation Area, where mallard numbers more than doubled from 31,500 to 85,000 birds. Waterfowl numbers remained largely unchanged on Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
“I don’t feel like we picked up any new birds, but the clouds covered up the bright moon and the cold made them hungry,” reports Tony Vandemore, at Habitat Flats near Sumner. “Temperatures are supposed to be on the rise, but as long as the birds don’t go nocturnal, we will be in good shape.”
State wildlife area reports from Kansas suggest that the weekend’s snow and cold forced remaining ducks and geese from shallow, managed wetlands onto bigger bodies of water. However, Oklahoma hunters are not reporting a significant increase in waterfowl numbers in the Sooner State.
“The day after the system hit Kansas, we did see a small uptick, but it was nowhere near the migration event we were hoping to see,” says Josh Richardson, a migratory game bird biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife. “Hunting has been slow in the state since the week before Thanksgiving, so hunters were eyeing last weekend’s storm with some optimism.”
Until another winter storm sweeps across Kansas, Richardson says Oklahoma duck hunters will have to make the best of current conditions. “We still have quite a bit of water on the ground, so the habitat is in good shape,” Richardson notes. “The birds that are here are scattered, though, so it’s a constant process of hunting and then scouting to find them again.”