Waterfowl wait for cold winds

T-R PHOTO BY GARRY BRANDENBURG Mallards, one of the hardiest of waterfowl, will wait until optimum weather fronts form, including a surge of very cold air from Canada, to begin one of the most prized spectacles of nature, a huge influx of waterfowl into Midwestern states. Flyways along major rives such as the Mississippi and Missouri are obvious corridor of travel. Wildlife refuges and other public wetland sites along these routes will see accumulating ducks and geese in significant numbers. They will use habitat sites to rest and exploring local feeding areas. Mallards, such as this preening pair, illustrate wild birds using resting time to get ready for more travel time to come.

WATERFOWL migrations can be a bit fickle. Where are they now? When will they make a big migration push to show up at any local marshes, ponds, lakes or rivers? Avid waterfowlers want to know. So in this day in age, computer tracking and posts from other waterfowl watchers keeps a fairly good tab on the various species of ducks. These methods help but nothing beats keeping tabs at close to home sites such as Hendrickson Marsh, Otter Creek Marsh or even Marshall County’s location of open water, Sand Lake, or Green Castle. If you do not have time to travel to far away wetland habitats, do make the effort to scout local wetlands.

The current mild weather systems does not lend itself to many waterfowl to fly south. They will slowly accumulate at refuges over time, but still wait it out and stay further north until the weather takes a turn for really cold conditions. One more round of really cold winter-like weather in South Dakota is all it will take to give the birds an incentive to move south. When these birds do move, they will add to good numbers of birds already at refuges within the flyways.

The confluence of the Illinois River and Mississippi River is the location of Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge in western Illinois. On Nov. 10, an estimated 324,000 ducks were at this wetland complex. In northwest Missouri’s Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, good numbers of puddle ducks have arrived. And all surrounding state, federal and private lands with shallow water pools are attracting many ducks and geese. Eastern South Dakota has lots of glacially carved lakes which are great waterfowl habitat, especially each fall and again during spring northward migrations.

This author has had many opportunities to visit Missouri’s Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge in the past. If one arrives at such a water habitat site in the fall, or spring, at just the right times, the spectacle of tens of thousands of waterfowl in the air and with shallow water filled pools is just plain awesome. My long lens and camera gets a workout trying to capture moments in time as the sky fills with beating wings. Knowing that my purchase of hunting licenses, state and federal waterfowl stamps, have helped make all this possible is a good feeling. That is why I continue to support the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge system and state habitat project management and enhancement.

So this fall, right now, be alert for new ducks and goose arrivals. Patience is a virtue that is especially true for waterfowl. Be ready to see them and be adaptable with your schedule to be where the ducks are during a big push of migration caused by cold weather changes further north of us. Good luck and happy birding.

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DUCKS AND GEESE molt. This is a change out of their feathers and in particular flight feathers. Molts happened a little at time for many species so the bird may never be flightless. A bit-by-bit molt is not very noticeable. For waterfowl, a different set of rules apply. Each summer an entire set of flight feathers get replacement treatment rendering the birds unable to fly or fly very well at all.

To deal with this, ducks seek out stands of bulrushes, cattail stands in marshes or other thick cover where they are safe from ground predators. They just hunker down and await new flight feathers to grow into place. Where they may also be far away from the nesting sites of the hens who are tending nests and new hatchlings. Bachelor groups of ducks, particularly mallards, can then become part of a first wave of migration in the fall. Hunters in the right place at the right time see lots of green heads.

Geese molting do an opposite strategy to wait out their molting and newly growing flight feathers. They congregate in open water lakes or large ponds that allows them to see predators. Large numbers of geese in these setting are not caught by surprise form aerial hunting eagles or hawks. With so many eyes constantly watching, nothing escapes detection.

By mid-fall, all ducks and geese are flight ready, able to cope with upcoming long endurance journeys rooted deep in their heritage. Migration becomes a must do thing for waterfowl that head south to over-wintering locations where food is available, thick ice and deep snow do not exist, and survival is greatly enhanced. Al this is necessary so that in the following spring, they fly north to nesting habitats in the northern United States, Canada and Alaska. The cycle of life continues. Feather molts are just one tiny phase that makes it all possible.

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A new brochure is available for your use and learning. It is a guide to Conservation and Recreation areas owned, operated and maintained by the Marshall County Conservation Board. Pick up your copy today or the next time you visit the Conservation Center at the Grimes Farm. The publication includes a map of Marshall County with all 29 wildlife, park or recreation areas highlighted so that you can find them during an outdoor excursion you may make. A handy table of contents lists what each area offers. So you just pick what interests you the most, find it on the map, and go there as your time allows.

The variety of things to see, things to do and explorations to make happen is only as endless as your enthusiasm will allow. If camping is your thing, great opportunities exist at Timmons Grove, Grammer Grove, or coming in the next few years at Green Castle. Trails for biking connect Marshalltown with the Conservation Center and other communities. Hiking trails at many county areas are considered “soft” in that these may be forest pathways or mowed grass lanes into and around water bodies or grasslands. Fishing and boating can be enjoyed at Sand Lake, or Green Castle or from access points along the Iowa River and its boat ramps. Hunting each fall is a big draw for many as game seasons open up. Photography opportunities never end for those prepared to do the hard work of getting to any site at the right time of year to record flowers, insects, tall grasses, new life emerging at nests or a host of other reasons why photos are made. Nature is everywhere and county conservation areas allow one to participate. Learn as much as you can by attending naturalist programs at county parks or special presentations held at the Conservation Center.

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“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are more omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

— Calvin Coolidge


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at P.O. Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.