Migration Alert: Winter Weather Pummels Northern Plains

Oct. 22, 2020 – Central Flyway – North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska

© Michael Furtman

An October storm is currently dropping several inches of snow on portions of North Dakota and South Dakota, leading to growing concerns among waterfowlers about the possible impact this early winter weather system might have on hunting opportunities in those states.

The heaviest precipitation is falling along the North Dakota/South Dakota border, where as much as 12 inches of snow may be on the ground by this weekend.

“When snow is that deep, waterfowl are probably going to move out,” says Randy Meidinger, a regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited in South Dakota. At the time of this report, Meidinger reported 8 to 10 inches of heavy, wet snow outside the window of his office in McPherson County in the north-central part of the state. “This amount of snow falling on top of ground that is not frozen is going to create some really tough field hunting conditions, too, for those hunters who do find some hardy birds remaining in this area. It is going to be a muddy mess for a bit until things dry up.”

The other side of this weather system brings another set of challenges, Meidinger says, as large areas of both North Dakota and South Dakota are set to see temperatures dip well below freezing for nearly a week, including some nighttime lows in the single digits.

“Many of our smaller wetlands are already frozen over, and the forecasted temperatures are going to lock up a lot of our larger wetlands, too,” says Meidinger. “We’re going to be making ice all day long for a bit, which again is going to cause some birds to move on out.”

David Azure, project leader at the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge, agrees, noting that the shallow bays and wetland edges on the refuge started to freeze yesterday.

“The snow that is falling today is sitting on top of that water, turning it to slush, so I fear that we are going to lock up a lot sooner than we’d like to,” Azure says.

The refuge is currently holding around 50,000 ducks, Azure reports, with the majority of those being gadwalls, green-winged teal and other dabblers. The refuge is just starting to see a trickle of snow geese this week.

“We have yet to see any major push of waterfowl yet this season,” he says.

It is a similar story in the Devils Lake region of North Dakota, reports Matt Sprenger with the Devils Lake Wetland Management District.

“There are good numbers of mallards, divers and some swans and snow geese on Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge and on Devils Lake, but I think that the big flights of mallards and other waterfowl have yet to come through this region,” Sprenger says.

This is a bit of a bright spot, Sprenger says, as it gives hope that there may be hunting opportunities on the other side of the snow and cold temperatures.

“We are going to get cold, but it will not be cold enough to freeze the larger lakes, so if the snow stays away and birds are able to get into the fields, I don’t see this being the end of our season,” Sprenger says.

Meidinger agrees that the availability of open water in South Dakota will be key to preserving the remaining weeks of the duck season in the eastern half of the state.

“Depending on what kind of warm-up we hopefully get in another week or so, we could see a situation where things moderate and birds move back into northern South Dakota. I’ve certainly seen that before,” Meidinger says. “But if the snow stays and we lose our open water, then the birds are going to stay where they can find food and avoid the ice. Finding that combination of open water and food will be key in the coming weeks in South Dakota.”

Looking farther down the flyway, hunters in Nebraska will likely not be immune from this weather system, either, as cold temperatures are expected to dip down well into the Cornhusker State.

“With the lack of moisture we’ve seen, we are already facing some unfortunate habitat conditions,” reports Jeff Drahota, biologist for the Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District, “so this cold snap probably won’t help things in the basin. I expect the birds that are here, or those that do migrate in, will use the river systems to find open water.”

Drahota says that Sandhill crane numbers are peaking in the Rainwater Basin this week, and about 10 whooping cranes arrived in the region yesterday.

“Typically, whoopers trickle in a couple at a time, so the sudden increase in their numbers tells me that they want to escape the weather up north, too,” Drahota says. “I’m sure we’ll see a migration of ducks in the coming days. The question is whether or not they will keep moving if we don’t have adequate habitat. This could be a situation where hunters may miss out on this push of birds if they are not out here when the cold really hits up north.”