They’re here. Perhaps you’ve seen them.
Perhaps you looked skyward and noticed, perhaps not.
It doesn’t really matter; those waterfowl streaming past us overhead don’t really care what we think.
But most any morning or evening look up and you will see skeins of Canada geese, flocks of pintails, even a few majestic tundra swans.
Already, observant folks are seeing white geese – lesser snow and Ross’ geese – on the prairie heading north. If water bodies are frozen, those white birds will stage in mid to late March by the tens, even hundreds, of thousands at Freezout Wildlife Management Area, which lies along Highway 89 north of Fairfield.
To keep track of what is appearing at Freezout call the WMA at (406) 467-2646.
With the recent wind and warm temperatures, ice is disappearing fast, and that’s good for our water loving avian friends. In the race north to find nesting spots, birds will fly as far as they can until they hit frozen water. Then wait.
For white geese that nest in the Arctic, even ice won’t stop them if they are near their destination.
The birds nest in the far north, on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Some set up shop on Wrangel Island off the coast of Russia. The largest colonies, however, are on Banks Island in the western Canadian Arctic (Pacific Flyway), Baffin Island north of Hudson Bay and along the west coast of Hudson Bay (Central Flyway).
In the Canadian Arctic where the days are long and the summers short, the birds have to nest early and the young have to grow fast.
But with the right combination of weather and frozen lakes, Freezout is the place to be for birdwatchers right now.
That’s because the white goose migration typically peaks at the end of March. Some years, winter weather farther north can bottle up the birds temporarily at Freezout, leading to numbers greater than 100,000.
In spring, an incoming flock of snow geese remains at Freezout Lake for an average of about four days before heading to the Arctic.
When arriving at Freezout, the birds settle onto the lake and ponds to rest. The next day just after dawn, the birds will fly to nearby grain fields to feed. Then around 10 a.m., they return to the water, to drink and rest before returning to feed in late afternoon. Finally, at dusk, they fly back to Freezout for the night.
Or some birds may decide to continue their migration north if they are sufficiently refueled and rested.
One unanswered question is why snow geese travel up to 2,000 miles to nest, when their close cousins, Canada geese, remain within just a few hundred miles of where they hatch.
One theory claims snow geese evolved on a cold-climate food base during the most recent ice age, then moved north as the glaciers began to recede.
Whatever the reason there are more than just snow geese now at Freezout; brochures describing the migratory waterfowl and their routes are available at Freezout, or the FWP Region 4 office in Great Falls.
Birdwatchers who head to Freezout in the spring to view migrating waterfowl, raptors and shorebirds need to be careful of muddy roads on the WMA.