Migration Alert: Central Flyway Mid-Winter Report

Jan. 27, 2020 – Central Flyway

© Michael Furtman

With snow and ice covering large portions of the northern and mid-latitude states in the Central Flyway, waterfowl are concentrated in areas suited to handle the winter weather conditions. In recent weeks, waterfowl managers in these states conducted annual mid-winter surveys of traditional winter staging areas and following is a look at what was observed.

The 90,000 Canada geese tallied in North Dakota fell just short of the 10-year average of 100,500 birds, according to state waterfowl biologist Mike Szymanski, who attributes the slightly lower number to a series of significant cold fronts early in the waterfowl season.

“We had some cold and big winds in early November and again in January that kind of cleaned us out, and we were never able to really build a big concentration of geese,” he says.

Of the estimated 90,000 Canada geese in the state, more than half were observed on the Missouri River tailrace below the Garrison Dam, while another 17,500 were counted on Lake Sakakawea. Nelson Lake, located just off the Sakakawea reservoir northwest of Bismarck, was holding another 22,500 geese and roughly 4,000 mallards.

There were some surprises in the South Dakota survey, says Rocco Murano, the chief waterfowl biologist with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.

“We counted around 60,000 Canada geese, primarily along the Missouri River, which continues a trend we’re seeing of declining dark goose numbers in January,” says Murano. “Birds seem to be wintering further north. You know something is changing when North Dakota has more Canada geese in January than South Dakota.”

Aerial surveys across South Dakota included an estimate of 31,500 mallards in the state, with the bulk of the birds being counted on the Missouri River.

The mallard numbers are down a little, Murano says, and reflect the impact that cold fronts had on ducks during the fall and first half of winter.

“Nearly all of the mallards that we have outfitted with transmitters as a part of a telemetry study are in Arkansas or further south, which again reflects the cold weather that we’ve seen the past few months in this part of the flyway. It’s what you’d expect to see when we have cold and big winds across the Dakotas,” he says.

What Murano wasn’t expecting to see on the survey, however, was a group of around 3,000 snow geese spending the winter on the Missouri River in the extreme southeast part of the state.

“In all my years of running surveys, I’ve never come across this before,” Murano says.

Winter weather has been relatively mild in Nebraska, according to Mark Vrtiska, waterfowl program manager with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, where around 30,000 light geese were observed during the mid-winter survey.

“When I see those kinds of numbers of light geese in the state in January, I know that Nebraska hasn’t had a really extreme winter,” Vrtiska says.

Unexpected delays kept him from conducting an extensive aerial survey of wintering areas for waterfowl, but Vrtiska says that where staff were able to get out they encountered abundant open water and good numbers of both mallards and Canada geese.

“The amount of open water that I saw was pretty impressive, and overall there is just a lot of water out there on the landscape, courtesy of all the precipitation we received last summer and fall,” he says.

Similar conditions exist in Kansas, according to Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Migratory Game Bird Specialist Tom Bidrowski.

“While flying the survey earlier this month, it was stunning to see the lingering effects of the rain we received last summer. Rivers, reservoirs and wetlands, they all showed signs,” Bidrowski says.

Official numbers from the survey were not available, but Bidrowski believes the state is holding a good number of dark geese and ducks, adding that a fair number of snow geese wintered in the state as well.

“Officially, our numbers might be down, but with the warmer weather we’ve had and all the water out there on the ground, the birds are scattered and kind of hard to count,” he says.

Look for more information on light geese in Kansas and further information on the upcoming Light Goose Conservation Order in the Central Flyway in the next migration report.