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home : columns : columns July 26, 2017

3/8/2017 2:00:00 PM
Ducks and geese have different spring migrations

Ron Kuecker
Outdoors Columnist

It's that time of year when we all want our migrants back. The small birds for sure, but for some of us, even more so, the ducks and geese.
The Canada geese arrive in some pretty good looking "V" patterns, some moving rapidly through, high overhead, others staying to nest.
Snow geese, if you're lucky enough to see a big spring flock, fly in long zig-zag lines stretching from horizon to horizon. A few springs ago a big flock had evidently slipped a bit east of its more usual Dakota pathway, when I encountered them one day. They were low enough I could distinguish between their two color variations, blue or white, and could hear their gentle murmuring to each other. Definitely not the honk of our big geese.
Against a blue sky it was a stop and watch moment.
Those are but one of many migration differences between goose species and ducks that seem to slip into our open water bodies almost overnight.
The reason for many of the differences is based on food availability. Snow geese follow the snow line as the spring thaw uncovers grain in the open fields where they feed.
I just checked a website for the spring conservation hunting designed to reduce overpopulated snow geese. They've just arrived in South Dakota and most guides are starting their hunts this week. North Dakota is seeing very few and Canada none.
Our big local Canade geese began arriving back the first or second week in February. I saw my first "big-uns" Feb. 7, one day after I saw a flock of five trumpeter swans. They were obviously a family group.
The big geese and even the swans to a lesser degree like open fields to feed. The geese arrive paired up and find little nooks and crannies of melted fields to dine morning and evening.
But it seems to me that the biggest push for them is the dash back to get a muskrat house before someone else does. I saw thick long-necked ganders and hens sitting atop their prime nesting spots around mid-February. That's about two weeks earlier than I usually see.
Based on that only, not possible future March snows and cold spells, they should be laying eggs by mid-late March and hatching mid-late April. Numbers of the big geese are trending down a bit and there are those who are happy about that.
Ducks are different
The spring duck migration is vastly different but here again is mostly based on food availability. Whereas geese follow the snow line, ducks follow the ice free lakes and marsh line.
In the spring most ducks feed on invertebrates (bugs to us regulars) or early growing water weeds. Many forms of vegetation start growing even before ice off if the sun can penetrate after the snow is gone. There even may be some fall seeds left in the shallow bottoms.
Blue-winged teal are our latest arriving duck because they are exclusive open water feeders. Woodies can go either way, water or field, similar to our once most numerous duck the mallard. I think right now our biggest job is to bring back good local mallard production as we have done for the woody and our big geese.
Pintails are a whole different species and we have lost most of them locally although one brood was spotted last year at the new Christiania Marsh southeast of Windom.
Pintails are the earliest nesting duck but now do that mostly in North Dakota and Canada in our central flyway. They love to build nests on open fields but then the nests get destroyed during spring tillage. That is why winter wheat is such a good habitat for early ground nesters. It grows early from the previous fall seeding, turns green and grows rapidly for nest cover. But winter wheat grain is a bit cheaper than spring wheat and cannot be grown as far north.
Ice out dates
I drove alongside Sarah Lake north of Slayton late last week and noticed the ice was mostly gone. Early ice out dates are common this year.
But keep in mind ice came out really late in 2013 with many records being set or coming in second. Late ice out dates were also late in 1996 and 1950.
One of the most studied lakes in the world is Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisc. It has been studied there by one of the oldest schools of limnology at the University of Wisconsin on the shores of that lake.
They've been keeping ice records there since 1852. Their records also record number of days of ice for the season. From 1855 through 1877 days of ice were mostly over 100. Since 2001 they have had only four years over 100.
Warming climate, no doubt, but that has been going on since the glaciers melted that stood a 1,000' above us 10,000 years ago. Carbon belching buffalo, smoke stacks and diesel trucks as a cause? I don't know about that.
Spring Hunting Forum
This year, for the 22nd time the local Game and Fish league will host a Spring Hunting and Outdoor Forum.
Subjects this year will be control of chronic wasting disease on deer and elk farms, a report from our local "game warden" on common violations and our new Ducks Unlimited biologist in Windom will show slides of our three newest wildlife areas.
It is on its usual date, last Thursday of March, March 30 this year.

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