The spring bird migration in Montana has been literally, flighty. Birds came and left so fast this year if you were not in the field waiting, you missed it. The numbers, as far as I can tell are down too. While I do have a Masters Degree in Science, my counts were not scientific, purely anecdotal and based on my 15 our so years of watching the spring bird migration along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. I’m sure there’s a reason the birds were quick and more elusive this year, but I can only speculate.
Where did the ducks and geese go?
I have to admit, I’m not a “birder,” or even a hard core duck guy. I don’t study the numbers and I’m not watching scientific trends as some of my more ardent waterfowling friends do. I like to photograph ducks and I’ve always like the idea that good ducks populations means good habitat, and good duck habitat is good for everything. Today, there are many variables that could affect ducks populations and their habits.
Montana winters are cold, but this past February was cold even by central Alaska standards. Parts of Montana had a February average temperature of minus one degree fahrenheit! We had low’s in the negative 40 range and weeks where we never broke zero. All of this culminated in one of the deepest freezes we’ve seen in recent memory. The earth froze deeper than usual, and the lake ice thicker than average.
This year when the first big wave of birds arrived, all the water was frozen, except for a few stream sections on the Missouri River. The bird’s major spring resting spot, Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area saw foot thick ice still by mid March!
The birds arrived, sat on the ice and scavenged for crumbs in the surrounding farm fields but soon tired of sitting on ice and digging through snow so they left. Where exactly they went is a good question but I’m sure it was north where temperatures were not as cold nor did they last for as long. Maybe there was open water up north? I don’t know.
In any event, as the video shows, I photographed migrating northern pintails, snow geese, swans - tundra and trumpeter - along with a few other puddle ducks for a couple days while their numbers peaked. I hope many of them flew through, because if that was the big pintail migration this year, we’re missing thousands of birds!
In the meantime, while I wait to see if any more birds arrive, here are some photographs of those migrating waterfowl taken from several locations around central Montana.
If you are interested in purchasing any prints you can visit my prints page here (scroll down to the bottom of the images to see recent waterfowl images: Tony Bynum Nature Photography Prints.
UPDATE BELOW - APRIL 4TH, 2019
Update April 4, 2019 - April warming temperatures, fewer ducks but more variety. Warmer temperatures and longer days brought new ducks to Montana. The pintails have mostly left but more wigeon, mallards, snow geese, and red headed ducks arrived. My last visit to the duck marshes along the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana was April 4. It was 55 degrees with a strong south west wind. The south west wind usually helps birds to fly north. On this day, the morning shoot was great but by noon there were almost no ducks. Most, I presume, headed north.
Is it Habitat, Clean Water, Climate Change, Over Harvest?
The simple and most likely answer is all of the above. But if we’re seeing lower numbers this year, what does it tell us about the past and what can it help us predict for the future? Probably a lot. I know bird numbers go up and down from one year to the next. But, it’s worth pondering the question, where did they go?
I’m worried about the proposed changes to the clean water act, and the definition of waters of the United States. I’m worried about what those changes might mean for habitat and water quality that the prairie ducks depend on. Some estimates are that half of the prairie pothole birds could be negatively impacted by a decision to remove them from the Clean Water Act. On the plus side, some say it’s a good decision since those ponds are not, on their surface connected to a river or steam. By removing clean water protections it will allow them to be filled, polluted, or otherwise discarded.
This article does good job of describing the issue with defining “waters of the US,” as it relates to the warmer waters of the everglades. EPA’s clean water rollback . . .
Closely related is water quantity and climate. In this great video below, duck hunters and conservationists from Arkansas tell us first hand about ducks, duck hunting and how things are changing in the south. This video is very worth watching.
The video itself does not explain, without question where the birds went or what is taking place in our environment. It does not conclude that climate is the culprit, but it is worth considering that people who care about ducks are seeing changes.
I don’t know what the future for ducks or water is for our country, or the world for that matter, but we have the power to make it whatever we want it to be. We all can get involved locally. Work on local environmental issues. In my personal life, I am involved. I also try to use less electricity, conserve water, in general, commit to being more aware of my “footprint.” What could others do? What could you do?