Over the past 10 years, waterfowl migration patterns have drastically changed in the Mississippi flyway. Gone are the days of huge flocks of mallards consistently swarming corn fields in November, and piles of giant Canada geese in late December and January are also dwindling. History has a tendency to repeat itself. Southern Illinois used to bill itself as “the goose hunting capital of the world,” but the majority of birds are gone. Duck migrations have changed as much, if not more, as geese along with the species’ populations. If it wasn’t for green wing teal counts growing to the highest they have ever been, many areas wouldn’t have had many ducks to shoot the first half of the season.
There are many theories among the hunting community as for why these changes are occurring. Global warming, flooding, and agricultural practices tend to be at the forefront of discussions. Harsh winter conditions seem to be showing up later and later each year and staying frozen for a shorter amount of time. For me one of the biggest changes from 20 years ago is the standard of Fall tilling. These agricultural practices have dramatically changed the landscapes of the Midwest from golden fields of corn stubble to freshly turned black dirt concealing the even smaller amounts of waste grains. Pair these things with a few unfortunately timed late Spring floods that seem to be occurring more and more often in the river valleys and feed has become beyond scarce.
For states like Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri, the changes just keep coming. According to the IDNR, the numbers from the Upper/LowerIllinois River Waterfowl Aerial Surveys indicate major changes from 2009 to 2015. Just look at the numbers. Canada Geese in Dec. 2009 reported a count of 34,600 in the Upper/Lower Illinois River Valley with 10 year average of 16,835. Just six years later in Dec. 2015, the survey reported 4,200 with a 10 year average of 23,600. Now I know that weather has a lot to do with Canada Geese migrations, but very few will argue that the overall migration patterns have changed and hunters just do not see the same concentrations of birds in the past six years.
One of the more interesting changes in migration patterns are the amount of White Front Geese or better known as Specklebellies (or “Specks” for short). These birds have moved into the Illinois River Valley the past 10 years and starting to winter here in growing numbers. Again from the surveys, Specs’ 2009 peak migration numbers were under 1,500 with a peak 10 year average under 2,000 birds. In 2015 peak was just shy of 12,000 and the 10 year average was up to over 5,000. One thing is for sure and that is the past six years hunters are not only seeing more Specs but starting to focus on this weary but very tasty bird.
Snow Geese migrations have been one of the most noticeable changes in the Mississippi flyway due to the huge concentrations in the Spring flights North. Warm March winds fill the skies with Snow Geese pushing back to the crowded breeding grounds of Canada. With the Snow Geese population explosion becoming an issue on breeding ground habitat, the US Fish and Wildlife Service started the Spring conservation order snow goose season about 15 years ago. According to the numbers from the Upper/Lower Illinois River Valley in Dec. 2009, zero birds were reported with a 10 year average of about 1,000. Now in Dec. 2015 over 26,000 birds were counted with a 10 year average of about 4,000 and rising. In the Spring season, large refuges, like Emiquon Preserve near Havana, Il, will hold 100,000 or more Snow Geese at a time. This also creates new hunting opportunities and an extended waterfowl hunting season.
For me, all of this change only brings excitement for the upcoming seasons to learn how to adapt to these changes, try new things, and focus on early season small ducks, late season Specs, and Spring Snows. Sure the stars may align, there could be a year with no major Spring floods for good natural food source, a wet Fall to reduce some tilling, and cold North winds with snow in early December to push the birds down, but you as a hunter will always have to change and learn new tactics to consistently harvest birds.
Executive Director – Hooked on Fishing Park Inc.