Migration Alert: Waterfowl Surge Through the Dakotas

Nov. 18, 2021 – U.S. Prairie Pothole Region

© Michael Furtman

The Veterans Day storm that brought a wintry mix of snow, wind and cold temperatures to the northern reaches of the Central Flyway also ushered in a migration of ducks and geese out of Canada and into North Dakota and South Dakota. With temperatures predicted to fall well below freezing across this region this week, hunters in states to the south could very well see a push of birds out of the Dakotas in the coming days.

Kyle Blanchfield, co-owner and guide with Northern Flight Guide Service in Devils Lake, reports that snow goose and mallard numbers have reached peak levels in this major migration staging area.

“I’m also seeing the first real push of bluebills and other divers, and those birds are way behind schedule,” Blanchfield says. “It’s great to see the big numbers of ducks and geese, but my concern is that with the snow we have on the ground and the cold temperatures coming, they may not stick around here too long.”

Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird management supervisor with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, shares Blanchfield’s concerns about the upcoming freezing temperatures.

“Outside of the Missouri River and some of the other larger water bodies, I suspect that we are going to lose our open water in the next week,” Szymanski says.

With the exception of the Devils Lake area, Szymanski believes that North Dakota is seeing the tail end of the migration, as large numbers of wigeon, gadwalls, green-winged teal, mallards, snow geese, and other waterfowl have already passed through the state. Those birds that remain may be difficult to hunt, he says.

“The highly concentrated numbers of birds that remain, specifically mallards, are mostly adult birds, and they are acting a lot like adult snow geese,” Szymankski says. “Really, though, throughout the fall, based on my observations and reports I’ve received, hunters have been dealing with mallards that are really tough to hunt. We knew going into this season that we had poor production across much of the Prairie Pothole Region, which means that we were going to see so many fewer younger birds in the fall flight. Fewer younger birds mean fewer birds making mistakes that adult mallards don’t typically make.”

Waterfowl numbers are continuing to build across northern South Dakota, according to Bruce Toay, conservation program manager for Ducks Unlimited in the state.

“We sure picked up good numbers of snow geese over the weekend, and I’m anticipating that we’ll get even more this week with the big wind that is supposed to blow through,” Toay says.

Like Blanchfield and Szymanski, Toay is somewhat concerned about how the colder temperatures will impact the amount of open water in South Dakota heading into the week of Thanksgiving.

“What we do have going for us is there is little snow cover and no snow forecasted,” Toay says. “So I’m sure that we’ll lose the small waters, but I’m guessing that some of the bigger lakes will remain mostly open. If the birds have open water and access to food, they will probably stick around for a bit. The next couple of weeks could be a good time to get out if you can.”