My job as an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department is varied. I spend a fair amount of time doing media work, but I'm also helping out frequently with other Game and Fish functions such as checking on possible fish kills or fishing access areas, 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?"

Wintering Geese

The 2016 midwinter waterfowl survey indicated a record 223,000 Canada geese were still in the state.​

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. In the southern end of the Red River Valley in early January, that's not a very significant number when compared to birds that are staging on the Missouri River System, but in some years the number of geese still hanging out in the east in January might surprise many readers.

Overall, the 2016 midwinter waterfowl survey indicated a record 223,000 Canada geese were still in the state. In other years, many of those same birds might have been counted in South Dakota or Kansas or Texas during survey week as in mild winters more birds linger in northern states; in severe winters more birds are counted in southern states. For instance, in 2009 just 9,700 Canada geese were observed in North Dakota during the midwinter survey.

The survey takes place at the same time in all states, so birds aren't counted more than once.

Andy Dinges, migratory game bird biologist for Game and Fish, said an estimated 109,820 Canada geese were observed on the Missouri River in central North Dakota this year, while the eastern end of Lake Sakakawea, which is typically iced-over in early January, held an additional 87,395 geese.

Another 25,370 Canada geese were counted on Nelson Lake in Oliver County, which is an out-flow for the Minnkota power plant that stays ice-free all winter.

Biologists also track goose observations during the state's spring breeding duck survey, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Waterfowl Breeding and Habitat survey, which take place during May.

In addition to geese, biologists are also interested in numbers and distribution of ducks they observe during the winter survey. This year, more than 15,000 mallards were tallied statewide.

Little snow had accumulated at the time of the survey, Dinges said, which meant geese could still readily find food in agricultural fields near roosting areas. Large Canada geese can withstand below-zero stretches, but when snow gets deep enough that it solidly covers up food sources, that's when geese are more likely to move on from northern staging areas.

For the most part, this winter didn't give birds much additional reason to leave if they were still here in January. And any birds that did leave could likely be back sooner rather than later. From reports I've heard, some Canada geese and even snow geese were observed flying their way northward over North Dakota the weekend of Feb. 20.

That's one of those signs of spring, though, that makes me a little uneasy when we still have almost a month of official winter left to go.