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Montana’s spring bird migration is on, but celebration off

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In this March 24, 2017, photo, two bird watchers photograph thousands of snow geese at the Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area outside Fairfield, Mont. Tens of thousands of the white geese migrate through the wetland annually at the end of March. PHOTO BY THOM BRIDGE

ASSOCIATED PRESS

HELENA — Celebration or no, the geese are coming.

Montana’s annual spring waterfowl migration is under way with tens of thousands of white geese and thousands of swans showing up at Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area north of Choteau.

Concerns over the coronavirus outbreak prompted the community to cancel what would have been its second Wild Wings Festival later this month.

But the Freezout wildlife area remains open to birders, who in some years descend en masse as snow geese congregations reach astronomical levels in early spring.

The lake is Montana’s primary snow goose staging area. As many as 300,000 snow geese and 10,000 tundra swans gather and rest there before flying onward to Alberta and central Saskatchewan in Canada.

There they mass with hundreds of thousands of other snow geese from Texas and other Gulf Coast states before making their way to their northern nesting grounds, arriving in mid-June.

“I would say it’s one of the most jaw-dropping, breathtaking experiences you can see,” Maggie Carr, co-owner of Dropstone Outfitting in Choteau told the Helena Independent Record. “It’s just the sheer quantity of birds is astonishing and just the noise they make–kids love it especially. You really don’t even have to love birds or really be into birds to appreciate it.”

Celebration organizer Julie Amelineshe and her colleagues were deeply disappointed at the loss of this year’s event – but notes that the geese are undeterred.

“The birds are really arriving now and it would still be a great little road trip to witness the migration,” Ameline told the Great Falls Tribune. “Even though everyone still needs to stay away from crowds, it would just be for them to be in the car, tour through, and stop to see a site that will amaze them.”

People also can keep track of the migration from home, with an online migration status tracker launched recently by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. As of Thursday, about 34,000 white geese and 2,500 were observed, according to the site.

Although daylight primarily drives the migration, several things may affect the timing of the birds’ arrival time.

“For large numbers of birds to concentrate here, the more water available–especially during resting periods–gives them more opportunities to spread out,” said Freezout Lake biologist Brent Lonner. “The biggest driver here when we see the biggest numbers here are correlated to weather. For example, when the birds start coming from the south and then a big storm comes from the north, they’ll be holed up here and others just keep piling in.”

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