Scott Weberpal | Spring Waterfowl Migration in Full-force!

Spring Waterfowl Migration in Full-force!

March 23, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Sandhill Cranes dance as part of their spring ritual.Mating DanceSandhill Cranes dance as part of their spring ritual.

Below is just a sample of my images from this past weekend, to view more, visit my Spring 2015 Gallery.

For the past week or so, waterfowl migration has been in full-force in southern Wisconsin.  Unfortunately with a relatively long stretch of above normal temperatures, many lakes across the state opened up quickly allowing the waterfowl to spread out rather than being concentrated in a specific area as is often the case.  Waterfowl numbers on many of the area lakes are low, at least in part, due to the quick thaw, but the exact opposite was the case at our family wetland in Rock County.

I had a couple of hours to spare Friday after work before picking up my son, so I made a stop at our land and was instantly greeted by dozens of Sandhill Cranes milling about the upland ag fields in close vicinity to the wetlands. 

There was likely 150 or more Sandhill Cranes in the immediate vicinity, and another 100 or so scattered around the area in groups of 20-50 each.   As is common this time of year, many of the cranes were "dancing" with their partners in anticipation of copulating as most birds do just after returning to their breeding grounds.  

Sandhill Cranes dance as part of their spring ritual.Mating DanceSandhill Cranes dance as part of their spring ritual.

One of the best parts about watching the cranes dance is they don't seem to have a care in the world about what is going on around them.  Quite often they are in the fields near the road and will go about their business when I stop to photograph them from my vehicle.

Looking back to the west toward one of our larger ponds, I could easily see it was filled with waterfowl.  In years past, we've had a good number of Great White-fronted Geese, Snow Geese and Ross's Geese use our property during migration with white-fronted geese being the most common.  Normally this time of year, access to our ponds is limited to on-foot only as the poorly-drained, mucky soils are saturated with snow melt and March rain showers.  This year I was able to get closer access to the pond due to our unusually dry winter and early warm weather eliminating the typical muddy mess.

Getting a good, high-contrast look at the pond during the even hours is typically difficult as the easiest access to the pond is on the east side and you are left looking generally toward the setting sun.   Something spooked them and I don't think it was me.Greater White-fronted GeeseGreater White-fronted Geese take flight after being spooked by a passing eagle. I stayed mostly on the northeast quadrant of the pond to get the best contrast and was able discern that 90% of the geese on the pond (and it was PACKED with geese) were white-fronted geese - well over 300, and that's being conservative.  In addition to the white-fronted geese, Mallards and Northern Pintail were the most common ducks with a few other species mixed in.

At this time we're in the process of developing a few more ponds in that immediate area, and one of the new, smaller ponds was a favorite of the Canvasback as there was several of them on the new ponds both Friday night and Saturday morning.  I then made my way to one of our other larger ponds about a mile to the west and found a much larger variety of ducks - Mallards, Ring-necked, Gadwall, Canvasback, Hooded Merganser, Green-winged Teal, Bufflehead, American Wigeon, Scaup, and certainly a few others I'm not thinking about right now.


Saturday morning I woke up before sunrise and headed back to our land knowing it may be the best opportunity for good photography during migration.  The forecast called for clear skies with a high of 48 degrees - that is a PERFECT early spring day.  I first made my way to the large pond on the north side of the property.  The pond was again loaded with white-fronted geese, Mallards, and Northern Pintail.  As I was making an attempt to count the geese (an almost impossible task), and Bald Eagle came in low and spooked much of the waterfowl from the pond.  A VERY large flock of white-fronted geese (300+) took off and flew to the west until they were out of sight.  I do no know if they returned again.  Many Mallards and pintail remained on the pond, and once again, several Canvasback were on one of the new, smaller ponds.

I made my way to the large pond to the south, this time using the access drive from the west where I could park on a grassy hill and walk down into the wetland.  With the exception of a few Song Sparrows, a few Downy Woodpeckers, the typical allotment of Red-winged Blackbirds, and a single Belted Kingfisher, there wasn't much non-waterfowl activity in the wetland area.  I could hear a couple very loud Northern Flickers calling from the woods around Bass Creek to my north.  As I got to the large pond, the diversity of waterfowl was still 

Northern PintailNorthern Pintail

large, and I was able to get a good glimpse and a few photographs of some cooperative Northern Pintail.  Unfortunately I had moved just enough 

to spook the ducks, and they flushed to the other end of the pond.  I know I would flush them again if I walked to the other end of the pond, and I started to make my way back to my car.

Along the way I decided to check the Wood Duck nest boxes and clear out any unnecessary debris included wasp nests the wasps attempt to build inside the boxes annually.  Much to my surprise (BIG surprise), a few deer mice were using one of the boxes as a home.  As I opened the box and reached in, the mice decided to jump out with one of them landing on me.  Normally mice don't bother me, but I was a bit startled and something was jumping out of the box at me as I was reaching in to pull out debris.

After returning to my car, I made my way to another of our larger ponds.  This pond is on the east side of the property, and unfortunately has some high-tension transmission lines running through it that can make for a very unnatural scene in photographs.  For whatever reason, this pond normally doesn't have the numbers or variety that many of our other ponds have, but there's always something over there.

Mute SwanMute Swan I arrived to several Canada Geese, 3 Mute Swans, and a few Mallards and Wood Ducks working the far edge of the pond.  The Mute Swans were very cooperative and floated around in the water as I was lying in the grass photographing them.  For the most part, the swans stayed within 50 yards of where I was, yielding some great photographic opportunities.

As I was photographing the Mute Swans, I heard something rustling in the grass several feet from me and it was getting closer!  I wasn't sure whether to continue lying still, or get up and walk the other way.  I knew it wasn't likely to be a skunk and as they are largely nocturnal.  Perhaps a muskrat?  As it turns out, it was a mink!  The mink literally walked up to within 3' of me (bless the short minimum focus distance on the new Canon 100-400mm II), and I was able to snap off a few so-so images before it wandered into the water.   This mink snuck up next to me.  It got within 4' of where I was lying in the grass.MinkThis mink walked up to within a couple of feet from me. What a treat! I had only seen fleeting glances of wild mink in the past, so seeing one only feet from me was a HUGE treat.  I stayed for another 15-20 minutes after the run-in with the mink, snapping off another 100 or so images of the Mute Swans.

After leaving that pond, I grabbed some lunch then made my way back to Whitewater.  I decided it was the perfect day for my maiden 2015 kayak voyage, so I dusted off the kayak and took a relaxing afternoon paddle around Trippe Lake in Whitewater.  The highlight was a Bald Eagle perched in a pine tree on the southeast side of the lake near where Whitewater Creek flows in.  Both Cravath and Trippe Lakes in Whitewater were very limited on waterfowl species diversity and overall numbers.

After a long day outdoors, it was time to do what most college sports fans should be doing in March - watch basketball.  Go Badgers!  To see more pictures from this past weekend, visit my Spring 2015 Gallery.  Thanks for reading!





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