Over half of all the 914 species of wild birds in the United States will migrate south this fall making it a prime time to be able to enjoy the nation’s waterfowl, whether you’re hunting them or watching them. And you will not be alone—according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 70 million U.S. residents 16 years old and older participated in some form of wildlife-related recreation in 2011.

For anyone who enjoys watching waterfowl for any reason, there’s good news. Except for severe drought this fall in California and a small area of North Texas, all across the rest of the North America drought has eased considerably. More than 40 million migratory ducks and geese are expected to take flight in this fall’s migration, down slightly from 2013 (due to the drought) but up 43 percent over the long-term average from 1955 to 2013.

Waterfowl migration is already underway and there is an annual species pattern in each area. I’ll use Lake Erie as an example as that’s where I first learned about migratory waterfowl. I should add that some species of ducks, especially mallards, and an increasing number of Canada geese, don’t migrate these days. These non-migratory birds are the result of people purchasing domesticated birds, who then got loose and those populations have grown and now have become problems in some communities.

The first migratory ducks to appear around Lake Erie are blue-wing, green-wing, and cinnamon teal. The teal season is already over for Michigan. As of September 15, there were already some flocks of blue-wing teal in the Texas rice fields.

The next wave of black ducks, widgeon, gadwall, pintails and mallards, are already pouring into the marshes along Lake Erie. These ducks don’t dive, but tip up to feed on seeds, aquatic plants or insect larvae in shallow marshy areas. The first flight of black ducks or “black mallards” is a subspecies that has yellowish-orange feet and bills, hatched in southern Canada.

The next species are diving ducks, greater and lesser scaup or “bluebills,” and redheads. They prefer open water and dive for food, including aquatic plants, invertebrates, snails, and freshwater clams. “You can set your watch by the bluebills. They’ll arrive every year on October 20,” is one of the standards of Lake Erie waterfowler wisdom. Sure enough, almost to the hour, large rafts of scaup sprinkled with redheads appear on that magical date. Fresh from Canadian breeding grounds, many act like they’ve never seen a human before and they often behave almost like tame birds.

For Lake Erie hunters, the highlight of the season is the arrival of canvasbacks, the largest of the diving ducks. Males have reddish heads, gray backs, white sides, and black breasts, beaks, and tails. Females have the same shape, but they are dull brown and gray. As snowflakes begin to fall, clouds of the big chestnut-headed divers come streaming down out of the northern skies, settling into beds of eelgrass. Every Downriver Detroit duck hunter sleeps little when the “cans” arrive. Many say they are the best tasting of all the wild ducks. By this time, flocks of Canada geese are also migrating south.

As snow begins to fall and ice forms along the shores, black and white diving ducks appear in the open water, along with more scaup. On a cold, calm day, when the ice rims the shores, two haunting sounds break the silence: the whispering whistle of the wings of passing flights of goldeneyes and the ice cracking in the current.

As the shallows begin to freeze, next comes a flight of darker black ducks with bright reddish-orange legs and sparkling silvery underwings. Some call them “red-legs.” They arrive right ahead of the first winter storms and generally don’t stay too long.

If Lake Erie and the Detroit River don’t freeze over, many diving ducks stay in the area. It’s the availability of food, not the weather, that drives the migration of most waterfowl. The Detroit River is nearly a mile wide as it empties into Lake Erie. Thirty to 40 years ago, those wintering birds were in jeopardy from oil spills. Today, thanks to one of the most notable conservation success stories in North America in the twentieth century, the Detroit River and Lake Erie no longer suffer from oil spills, and if the winter is warm, ducks remain there through the winter, offering a fabulous chance to watch thousands of waterfowl at places like Pointe Mouillee and the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge in the lower Detroit River around Grosse Ile.

The most spectacular fall Lake Erie migration flight of all is the last. As the river and lake begin to freeze over, giant whistling swans elegantly make their appearance, chased south by snow storms that make the birds become invisible as they fly. The arrival of the majestic, noisy swans makes the front page of the newspapers. So long as ice does not cover the entire river, you can see the swans, which look like icebergs floating in the open water on a cold December day. Then, like ghosts, they disappear as the temperatures drop and the river and lake freeze over, and Canada and the United States became linked under a blanket of snow and ice. If you’re lucky, maybe a bald eagle will pass by, looking for food.

There are many other good places to watch waterfowl around the United States. Some of the best include the Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge of Southern Oregon-California, the Sacramento Wildlife Complex in the Central Valley of California, and Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Of course, all along the Gulf Coast there will be ducks and geese all through the winter.

While food and habitat move birds south in the fall, their ability to accurately navigate thousands of miles remains one of the wonders of nature. When you do see migrating birds, know that they are protected thanks to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, that covers the annual migration routes of North America and helps state and federal resource agencies in Canada, the United States, and Mexico coordinate efforts to protect birds from poaching, as well as preserve habitat.

Image by Dan Pancamo

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