A few weeks back, I did my little part of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s midwinter waterfowl survey, as I’ve done years in the past, and which biologists across the nation do each year. Friends wonder why? Why count ducks and geese in January?
The midwinter waterfowl survey is a nationwide effort to assess winter distribution and abundance of waterfowl across North America. It got its start in the 1930s, and for awhile it was a major source of information for developing hunting regulations until breeding ground surveys were initiated in 1955.
In North Dakota, Canada geese from three subpopulations, plus mallards make up the bulk of the birds hanging around in early January.
While the bulk of North Dakota’s survey is based on an aerial flight over the Missouri River, my role was to check for birds in the Fargo area where open water might still have existed on rivers. And I did find some pockets of mallards and Canada geese, though the numbers are barely significant compared to the thousands of birds that are often counted on the Missouri River in the central part of the state.
The annual midwinter waterfowl survey in early January indicated about 135,000 Canada geese in the state. Andy Dinges, migratory game bird biologist, said that number likely would have been higher, but bitterly cold weather in late December undoubtedly pushed some birds south just prior to the survey.
“However, we still saw a significant increase in the number of Canada geese, as compared to the 26,400 that were recorded last year,” Dinges said. “A year ago, wintering conditions with heavy snowfall were highly unfavorable, which dramatically reduced access to waste grain.”
During the recent survey, an estimated 110,800 Canada geese were observed on the Missouri River, and another 24,000 on Nelson Lake in Oliver County. No waterfowl were recorded on Lake Sakakawea, which officially froze over just days before the survey.
The 10-year average for the midwinter survey in North Dakota is 95,600 Canada geese and 27,300 mallards.
The importance of biological surveys is more than just the popular hunting season forecasts generated by summer pheasant and duck brood tallies. Off-season winter counts, such as the midwinter waterfowl survey, also provide a better assessment of available winter habitat and population trends for waterfowl.
As a biologist, I certainly enjoy seeing first-hand the hardy mallards still feeding on an oasis of field corn and dabbling in a pocket of open water near a rock rapids on the Red River.
It’s kind of like the ducks and geese are a kindred spirit, having the means and ability to migrate south, but choosing to stay here well into winter like many of us. Makes a frozen-toed biologist wonder just what they are thinking, too.