With Ducks, Timing Is Everything

By understanding the migration timing of ducks in the Pacific Flyway, you'll be better armed the next time you go out gunning for that coveted bird that manages to elude you every year. (December 2005)

Photo by John Ford

Just like every football fan has a favorite team, for every duck hunter there is that one special duck that is held in higher esteem than all the rest. The smiles grow a bit wider than usual each time that species is included among a hunter's bag. If you're like most duck hunters, however, one of the reasons your favorite duck is so coveted is because you so rarely see it during the hunting season. But by studying its traditional migration patterns, you can concentrate your hunting efforts on the time when it's most likely that special bird will pass through your hunting grounds.

Because there are so many unpredictable factors that influence duck migration, it is impossible to gauge from year to year the exact dates ducks will frequent your decoys. While there might never be a duck hunter's crystal ball, few tools are as effective at taking the guesswork out of the prediction as Frank C. Bellrose's book, "Ducks, Geese & Swans of North America," (Stackpole Books, 1976). This book contains information that waterfowl management decisions have been based upon for many years, and nearly all of the technical information included in this article was obtained by reading Bellrose's comprehensive work. Bellrose's book is as valuable as a shotgun for hunting waterfowl. No serious duck hunter should be without it.

Even with the best tools at your disposal, however, predicting migration timing can be an overwhelming task. Most species of waterfowl migrating through the Pacific Flyway frequent at least one of three key areas in the flyway. By correlating hunting efforts with your favorite duck's arrival in, and path to, the Columbia Basin, Klamath Basin and California's Central Valley, you can increase your odds of going home with that coveted prize.


Because of their preference for northern nesting areas, widgeon migration is more prolonged than the migration of ducks that breed farther south. Widgeon will start moving south early in September, and the majority of the population that nest in Alaska will follow the Pacific Coast to Puget Sound. Some will winter here while others will continue on to the Columbia and Klamath basins as well as California's Central Valley.

Populations that breed in Alberta use a path that takes them through eastern Washington and central Oregon to Klamath. Arrival times in these areas will vary depending on which nesting areas the birds are using, but there are also populations of resident birds in both Klamath and Columbia. Ben Holten, owner of North Flight Waterfowl in Washington, who has been guiding in the Columbia Basin for 10 years, said he sees large numbers of widgeon in the basin regularly.

"Widgeon will be here all year," Holten said. "As the season moves on, and more ducks come in, the proportion of widgeon declines, but there is always a steady population."

Holten said widgeon are thickest in mid-October through November. Many will continue their migration to Klamath and start reaching high concentrations in November, while the Central Valley's numbers will continue to rise through December.


Although blue-winged and cinnamon teal are common, the green-winged is the most abundant teal throughout the western reaches of the Pacific Flyway. Like widgeon and pintail, green-winged teal prefer the Arctic breeding grounds. When they leave the nesting areas of Alaska in early September, the majority of the birds either fly along the coast of British Columbia or through the interior of the province. The inland birds, as well as many that nest in the Canadian arctic, continue on through central Washington and Oregon. Start looking for green-winged teal in these areas as soon as hunting season opens.

Both the inland and Pacific Coast corridors of the green-winged teal converge on Klamath and reach their fullest numbers in mid-October. They continue on to the Central Valley in increasing numbers through December.

"Green-wings are among the earliest migrants," said Mike Wolder, supervisor-wildlife biologist at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex. "They'll start showing up in August and peak in December or January."

Because of their small size, teal will usually rest in areas for a prolonged time in order to build the necessary fat reserves required to make the next leg of their journey. This offers early season hunters who are gunning for a green-wing a little more forgiveness if they miss the first day the birds fly in.


Many duck hunters prize pintails for their ornate plumage and elegant tail feathers. Hunters looking to add a pintail to their collection typically need to be in the blind as soon as the season opens. Although at one time they were one of the most abundant ducks breeding in the arctic, pintails also nest in significant numbers in the prairies of lower Alberta and Saskatchewan. Around the end of August, these birds take a direct flight to the Columbia and Klamath basins. Both of these areas are extremely important for pintails, and a large percentage of the population can be found here annually.

"Pintails are early nesters and early migrators," said Jeff McCreary, a Ducks Unlimited regional biologist in California. "They'll start coming in early, but they won't reach peak numbers here until December or January."

Much of the reason for their late arrival in California is because they will linger for long periods of time in the Columbia and Klamath basins -- some even preferring to spend the winter in these areas.

"Look for pintails in the shallow, flooded areas," Holten said. "Sometimes, they'll be out on the main river, but they seem to prefer the millet ponds and mud flats."


Its adaptations for feeding have provided the Northern shoveler one of the most distinct features of any species of North American waterfowl. It has also made it a sought-after duck for hunters. Although the prairies of lower Saskatchewan and Alberta are the main breeding areas for shovelers, a large percentage of the birds remain in the Western states throughout the year.

For those resident birds, the timing and path of their migration differs according to their breeding area, but the majority of birds that nest in Canada and winter in the Pacific Flyway take one major migration route. This path leads them through eastern Washington, central Oregon and onto the Klamath Basin, where large numbers of shovelers gather in mid-October. From their mid-migration grounds here, shovelers will continue on to the Cent

ral Valley, and most will eventually reach their preferred wintering grounds in Mexico.

"A few start showing up in September, but we won't see large numbers until December or January," Wolder said. "Only a few, maybe 1 percent of the population, will spend the winter here."


Although Utah's Great Salt Lake is home to large numbers of breeding redheads, it isn't the only place the regal-looking birds nest. Breeding redheads can be found from the Northern Plains of Saskatchewan down to Southern British Columbia. The Columbia and Klamath, as well as Malheur Basin in Oregon, also support nesting populations of redheads.

Because their breeding range is so scattered throughout Canada and the Western states, redheads can be found throughout the Pacific Flyway from the time migration starts in September until freeze up. The highest concentrations of them, however, usually occur in mid-October in Washington, because many of the birds that breed in Utah fly north before starting their winter migration south. By late October, Klamath is getting its biggest populations of the season, and most of the redheads have arrived in California by late November. Of the most coveted birds in the Pacific Flyway, redheads are one of the least seen by hunters in the Western states.

"We get some that nest here, and a few that migrate through, but we just don't see big numbers of redheads here," said Howard Browers, a wildlife biologist with the Mid-Columbia River National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Wolder echoed that statement for the California population.

"We have a few all year, and they breed in relatively small numbers," he said. "But redheads in California really are not that numerous."

Because of their propensity to breed in the lower states, the few redheads that come through usually migrate a little earlier than their crimson-caped cousins.


"I get a lot of species hunters who come out and want to shoot a bull can," said Darren Roe, owner of Roe Outfitters and a 21-year veteran guide of the Klamath Basin. "These guys will come spend four or five days just to get a couple of bull canvasbacks."

Arguably one of the most sought-after ducks on the continent, canvasbacks start reaching impressive numbers in the waters Roe hunts in November. The majority of these birds most likely come from nesting grounds in Alberta and follow a straight path through Washington and Oregon to Klamath. Roe said canvasbacks will stay until just before the freeze, but will often come back after thaw.

"We'll freeze in late December and typically thaw in late January before hunting season closes," he said. "It's some of the best diver shooting anywhere in the Continental U.S. for that reason."


Between the two subspecies of scaup, greater scaup tend to be much more elusive in the Pacific Flyway than lesser scaup because nearly the entire population of greaters follows a coastal corridor to and from their arctic breeding grounds in Alaska to wintering areas in Puget Sound, San Francisco Bay and Southern California. Lessers also tend to take a coastal corridor to wintering grounds in San Francisco Bay and Baja, Calif., but there are a number of lessers that migrate from Western Canada through Washington and Oregon to California. There are also small populations of lessers that breed in both the Columbia and Klamath basins.

Both greaters and lessers tend to follow similar migration timelines and leave Alaska in early September. Scaup usually fly long distances between resting areas, which means that they will stay in those areas for longer periods of time than many other species so that they can build up fat reserves for the next leg of their journey. Whether on the coast, or farther inland, the number of scaup will start increasing in upper Washington in late October. In the Klamath, the largest numbers will typically be reached in mid-November.

"Scaup are usually at their peak in November," Browers said. "We primarily see lessers, but there are greaters in small numbers."

Some of these birds will filter down to the Klamath by December, but the majority will follow a course that leads them straight to San Francisco.


Even the most veteran waterfowlers can sometimes have difficulties telling bufflehead and goldeneyes apart, but the two species share much more than physical characteristics. Their breeding grounds and migration timing of these two ducks are also similar.

Both nest in the northwestern stretches of Alberta and into Alaska. Bufflehead will leave the nesting grounds in mid-October, with goldeneyes, which are typically the last migrants to leave, following not long after. Where the birds really begin to differentiate themselves is their distribution in the Pacific Flyway.

Bufflehead follow several different migration corridors through Washington, Oregon and California to wintering grounds in these states as well as Mexico. Goldeneyes prefer to spend the winter congregated along the Pacific Coast in Alaska and Canada. While the majority of goldeneyes remain north of the U.S. border, there are small populations that winter in scattered areas throughout the Western states.

"We see quite a few bufflehead and goldeneyes," Browers said. "November is when you see the majority of them come through. Bufflehead are probably more common, but we get a fair number of goldeneyes on the river."

While the bufflehead are likely to continue their migration after resting on the Columbia, many of the goldeneyes will remain there throughout the winter. "Bufflehead are regular winter residents, and we usually start seeing them in November," Wolder said. "My experience is that goldeneyes tend to be a river bird, and it takes a lot to push them down from those areas. If we see them, they come in later than the bufflehead."


Undoubtedly the most colorful species of North American waterfowl, and arguably the most secretive, wood ducks have become a prized trophy for any duck hunter.

If you want more information about hunting in the Columbia and Klamath Basins, contact:
Ben Holten

North Flight Waterfowl

P.O. Box 463

Richland, WA 99352


Darren Roe

Roe Outfitters

4849 Summers Lane

Klamath Falls, OR 97603

(541) 884-DUCK


Wood ducks are one of the few ducks that rarely nest north of the U.S. border. There are significant populations, however, that

nest throughout Washington and migrate to the Columbia and Klamath basins as well as the Sacramento Valley to spend the winter. Woodies start arriving in these locations around the middle of October through the end of November, but the influx of migrating birds mixing with resident ducks makes calculating an accurate timing of migration extremely difficult.

Hunters' greatest chances of bagging a wood duck depends more on location than timing. "In certain areas, there are a lot of wood ducks. October through Nov. 15 is the best time for them, but you have to be in the right spot," Holten said of the Columbia Basin. "On the Yakima River, there are a lot of woodies. On the Columbia, you might see one every 10 years. If you know where to look for them, you can usually find them. Do your homework and scout."

Although Holten's advice is particularly true for wood ducks because of their specialized habitat requirements, the same philosophy can be applied to every species of waterfowl.

"I try to think of why a bird would be in this particular habitat, and for the most part, there are two main reasons," said DU's McCreary. "The biggest reason is food, the other is rest. In winter, especially when they're migrating, ducks need to refuel and conserve energy, and they have different habitats for each. If you think in those terms, you're likely to find the birds."

Habitats that provide those two necessary resources can change as the season progresses, making the need for understanding the timing of your favorite duck even more critical. But because ducks base their movements on both an internal clock and the conditions in a particular area, hunters should be just as cognizant of the weather as they are of the calendar.

"Anymore, it's so dependent on the weather," Roe said. "We're ready to shift gears at a moment's notice depending on what the weather and the birds show us. And that's what I tell the guys who are die-hard hunters -- you've got to be flexible."

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