Migration Alert: Weather System May Improve Hunting in Washington

Dec. 28, 2017 – Pacific Flyway – Washington

Photo © Michael Furtman

By Bill Monroe, WF360 Pacific Northwest Migration Editor

A long-awaited cold snap recently covered Prairie Canada with snow and subzero temperatures, finally driving ducks and geese southwest into Washington and areas south. The Arctic chill has improved waterfowl hunting in the Evergreen State from the Pacific coast to the Palouse region. Notable exceptions include the northeast part of the state, which remains cold and frozen, and north Puget Sound, where tens of thousands of call-shy ducks are safely rafted on open water.

A windy front is moving across the Northwest through Friday, however, pushing many of these birds off white-capped waters. Warmer temperatures in this weather’s wake should stir waterfowl statewide.

“Weather change is a good thing,” says Chris Bonsignore, DU’s manager of conservation programs for Eastern Washington and much of Idaho. “We had a kind of high-pressure cold snap going for a while and now there’s some wind and rain. We’ve seen some new birds—ducks and especially geese—just this past week. There are many more ducks now than we had two weeks ago.”

Bonsignore reports that some of the best conditions prevail in central Palouse region south to the Columbia and Snake Rivers. “The goose migration was late, but we’re starting to see more geese statewide,” he says. He adds that there’s plenty of open water for the birds to roost and agricultural fields for them to feed in the Tri-Cities area.

Although Moses Lake and other areas to the north are on the edge of the freeze-up, some potholes may remain open, Bonsignore says. “If a hunter can find spring-fed open water near a farm field, there should be some good hunting,” he explains. “I’m optimistic about the rest of the season. I think birds are pretty much going to be here.”

Kyle Spragens, waterfowl section manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, also believes that hunting conditions are improving. “The weather is playing weird games in different parts of the state,” he says. “Ducks were off to a late start, but I’ve heard good things from the lower Columbia River and coastal bays.”

According to Spragens, the strange weather might be due in part to another dry winter in California, which tends to keep birds in the north and often pushes them to the Pacific coast, where they fly north and south in search of feeding and roosting areas. On Willapa Bay, for example, hunters are reporting improved duck numbers and a wide variety of puddle ducks.

“I’m hearing about a lot of canvasbacks on large open water from the Columbia Basin down to the Lower Columbia [estuary],” Spragens says. “That’s new—now guys can go out and collect their two cans.”

While much of northwest Washington remains cold, some birds are using rivers, and goose numbers have improved in most areas along eastern Puget Sound. Spragens had hoped that his crew would be able to fly a survey plane across Padilla and Samish bays in the north sound to count snow geese, brant, and dabbling ducks before the new year, but so far the weather hasn’t cooperated.

Spragens adds that Canada geese and snow geese are roosting on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, but feeding in Washington. The snows—up to 20,000 birds—“are sort of a new phenomenon,” Spragens says. The birds began to show up about 10 years ago and the numbers continue to grow each year. The snow geese also use McNary National Wildlife Refuge and fields in Franklin and Walla Walla Counties.

Bill Monroe is an Oregon-based freelance writer who has hunted the Pacific Flyway for three decades. Monroe will provide hunting and habitat reports throughout the Pacific Flyway for the 2017-2018 waterfowl season.