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  • Writer's pictureNorth Dakota Wildlife Federation

Snow Geese & Waterfowl Return

With the recent warm stretch and receding snowline in the upper Midwest, many outdoors enthusiasts have their eyes to the skies watching for the return of waterfowl species to the region. Snow goose hunters in particular are preparing for the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of migratory light geese that pass through the area and provide short-lived but exciting spring hunting opportunities. Ducks Unlimited (DU) Conservation Programs Biologist Dane Buysse is on top of all the recent developments

brought on by the sudden surge of early spring in North Dakota and South Dakota.

A large flock of light geese circle and land in the soaked stubble of a cut cornfield during their spring migration

Snows on the Move

From reports compiled via co-workers and through DU’s network of spotters on the ground, Buysse has it on good authority that light geese are entering the region and may likely provide a hunting opportunity in the next few days from where they’re staging in South Dakota and northern Nebraska. “That southern portion of South Dakota is really starting to see some heavy migration and that northern portion of Nebraska is where you’re going to find a decent number of birds,” Buysse relates from his collection of reports, “with this warm spell you’re going to be seeing some wet conditions out here, going out hunting this weekend and next week, you’re going to find some very saturated soils,” he continued referencing the wet conditions carrying over from the fall.

As sportsmen prepare in North Dakota for the birds’ return, Buysse suggests that the areas surrounding the James River valley are the best place to start due to a coming together of a number of conditions.

With heavy snow in the Red River valley, and virtually no snow in the Missouri River basin, a Goldilocks scenario is unfolding along the continental divide in North Dakota – an ancient spring track for light geese returning to their tundra-based nesting sites up north. “Snow geese tend to travel that James River valley corridor and there’s going to be a lot of moisture out there which is going to have the capacity to hold a lot of birds,” Buysse says of the combination of historical path with good on-the-ground conditions, “to my knowledge the snow geese just got to Pierre, SD, this past weekend so you may see a few over west, but I would tend to hang over that James River valley corridor,” he reiterates.

Super Sites

One tool to help track the movements of light geese throughout the region is DU’s migration tracker ( Buysse suggests that hunters use the staff- and member-powered monitoring program to key in on where birds are located, whether they’re coming into or leaving an area, and when their populations show up to help plan the often short-notice type of hunts that the spring conservation order fosters each year. “It’s really a simple tool,” Buysse advises, “you can go to and you can pull up this map and the map will bring you to locations where birds have been identified; it will tell you if there’s increasing numbers, decreasing numbers [or] peak numbers.

Additionally, Buysse suggests the use of, a site sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, utilizing on the ground reports of birdwatchers from around the country – of which Buysse is a continuous contributor – to get a feeling as to where migratory birds of all kinds are located in their annual return trips. The site also provides historical average return dates for migratory birds observed in a given area and can also provide insight as to whether or not the spring migration is ahead of schedule.

Very Good Returns

With last autumn’s significant rainfall leaving pothole sloughs and other wetlands full to the brim and then some, it is likely that good conditions will greet waterfowl returning to the region in the next few weeks. As Canada geese and mallards set up for spring and begin venturing out to stake their territory and nesting sites, some waters might be even a bit too full, pushing some nests up further away from the normal basin edge as things melt and waters come to rest in wetlands. “They will be quite good for waterfowl broods, some of the upland nesting habitat may be unavailable for them due to it being flooded,” Buysse predicts, “a lot of your dabbler ducks, your mallards and so forth, are going to be nesting up higher than the wetland basin, so they’re going to be a ways away from the wetlands up in the grasses,” he concludes.

The light goose conservation order opened Feb. 22 in North Dakota and runs through May 10, with more information available at

By: Nick Simonson


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