My duties as an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department are varied. For example, I help with other Game and Fish functions such as checking on fishing access sites, possible fish kills or conducting upland and small game surveys.
One of the surveys is a count of waterfowl hanging around North Dakota in the middle of winter.
When I try to explain my role in the midwinter waterfowl survey to friends, one of the first questions is, why?
The short answer is the survey is not just a North Dakota tally, but a nationwide count that tracks all species of geese to better understand their migration and wintering habitat, food and population dynamics.
It occurs the first week of January in all 50 states. Andy Dinges, department migratory game bird biologist, said the midwinter waterfowl survey is the longest running coordinated migratory bird survey in North America. It got its start in 1935 as an effort to estimate continental populations, as at the time breeding ground surveys had not yet started, and even today some of the Arctic-nesting goose species are difficult to survey because of the remoteness of their breeding grounds.
In early January, all the continent’s geese, ducks and swans are somewhere more accessible. Not very many are in the southern end of the Red River Valley, but anywhere there is open water, there are usually a few for me to count.
Farther west, where there is open water on the Missouri River below Garrison Dam and at Nelson Lake, and sometimes on Lake Sakakawea, the number of geese still hanging around in January might surprise readers.
The Game and Fish Department’s annual midwinter waterfowl survey in early January indicated about 165,000 Canada geese in the state.
Dinges said an estimated 67,200 Canada geese were observed on the Missouri River from MacLean Bottoms Wildlife Management Area south of Bismarck to Garrison Dam. An additional 65,100 Canada geese were observed on the lower portion of Lake Sakakawea, which still had substantial open water during this year’s survey. Nelson Lake in Oliver County was also holding 13,600 Canada geese and the remainder were scattered throughout the state in areas with open water.
Dinges said after summarizing the numbers, an additional 34,200 mallards were tallied statewide. Most were observed on Lake Sakakawea and on Nelson Lake.
“We’ve had an unusually mild winter with little snow accumulation. Availability of food should have been good and overall wintering conditions were excellent,” he said.
The first large waves of migrating waterfowl, according to Dinges, occurred during the last two weeks in October.
“After that short cold spell, above average temperatures, with little snow accumulation, allowed birds to remain in the state on the Missouri River System up until the survey date,” he said. “In addition, several reservoirs in the state that are typically frozen by late November had small pockets of open water and were still holding some birds.”
The 10-year average (2011-20) for the midwinter survey in North Dakota is 107,400 Canada geese and 21,800 mallards.
The odd snow goose might show up with Canada geese here and there, but tundra swans are rarely tallied in North Dakota.
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 all winter, like many of us.