Midwinter Survey Tallies Hardy Waterfowl

Doug Leier

By Doug Leier, NDG&F Dept.


My job as an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department is varied. One aspect I enjoy is helping out with other Game and Fish functions such as checking on fishing access areas or possible fish kills, or conducting upland or small game surveys.


One of those surveys is a count of waterfowl hanging around North Dakota in the middle of winter. When I try to explain my role in that 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. Game and Fish migratory game bird management supervisor Mike Szymanski says 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 of 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 tally.


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 in January might surprise many readers.


This year, the Game and Fish Department’s midwinter survey generated an estimate of about 90,000 Canada geese. About 50,000 of those were observed on the Missouri River, and another 17,500 were observed on Lake Sakakawea, which still had substantial open water on the lower portion of the lake in early January.


In addition, about 22,500 Canada geese were observed on Nelson Lake in Oliver County, according to Game and Fish migratory game bird biologist Andy Dinges.


Dinges said after summarizing the numbers, an additional 4,200 mallards were tallied statewide, most of which were recorded on Nelson Lake.



The 10-year average for the midwinter survey in North Dakota is 100,500 Canada geese and 22,000 mallards. The high count over that same 10-year period was 223,000 while the low count was just 9,700 Canada geese.


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.


Featured Photo: Some ducks and geese remain where there is open water in North Dakota, despite the harsh winter conditions around them. NDG&F Photo. 

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