Migration Alert: Winter Storm Slams Northern Plains with More On the Way

Dec. 22, 2022 – Central Flyway – Central Plains

© Michael Furtman

A severe winter weather system last week delivered blizzard conditions across much of South Dakota, and the deep snow, high winds and freezing temperatures had waterfowl on the move in the state.

Despite a round of winter weather in November, large numbers of Canada geese, snow geese and mallards remained in South Dakota into mid-December. Last week, an old-fashioned blizzard slammed the state, tipping the scales enough to spur a movement of waterfowl both within and out of South Dakota. Above the sounds of the howling winds and snow ripping across the landscape, the calls of migrating waterfowl could be heard. When the storm finally cleared and the sun appeared, flocks of birds lined the skies.

In terms of the impact to waterfowl concentrations, there appear to be two story lines. Some Canada geese and mallards have settled into their wintering areas in South Dakota, including metro areas and portions of the Missouri River, however the storm also spurred a migration of waterfowl out of the state, which is good news to hunters further south waiting on the arrival of new birds to provide a late-season spark.

The weather forecast for later this week contains another winter storm bearing down on the Northern Plains, bringing more snow, strong winds, bitterly cold temperatures and deadly wind-chill levels to South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska. It still may not be enough to empty out this portion of the Central Flyway, explains South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks senior waterfowl biologist Rocco Murano, but it certainly tips the odds in favor of pushing even more ducks and geese south in time for hunters looking to get out over the Christmas holiday.

“The cold alone might be enough to send some birds south, including those on the lower stretch of the Missouri River, but if we get enough snow, it might even push birds out of those metro areas that can hold birds all winter,” says Murano. “I am guessing that any ducks and geese out near Pierre are having a tough go of it with all the snow on the ground in that part of the state, so they may not stick around either. We’ll know a whole lot more about bird concentrations after this weather in a few weeks when we run our mid-winter survey.”

Among the places that received an influx of waterfowl during last week’s storm was central Nebraska. Jeff Drahota, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist with the Rainwater Basin wetland management district, says the region picked up “a lot of new birds.”

“Normally, you’ll see the birds a day or two after the storm when the skies clear and the sun is shining, but these birds were arriving right in the middle of it all, battling a stiff headwind,” says Drahota. “It was pretty impressive to see.”

Mallards and snow geese were among the new arrivals, Drahota says, but he believes that the number of Canada geese saw the biggest increase.

“We still don’t have much for water, so some areas of the Platte River and our reservoirs are holding the birds at this point,” says Drahota. “The next 24 to 48 hours will determine how much of our open water will remain, as the bottom is really going to fall out on our temperatures. Both mallards and Canada geese will stick it out through the cold, though, if there isn’t too much snow on the ground. If we get a lot of snow, I’m sure we’ll lose birds ourselves.”