Freezout Lake is frozen solid just weeks before the annual spring waterfowl migration that attracts hundreds of thousands of migrating geese and swans to the lake in addition to birdwatchers who flock to the lake to view them.
“Assuming birds even start showing up, there’s going to be a lot of sitting on the ice for some of the birds,” said Brent Lonner, a wildlife biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
Montana is in the midst of a long, hard winter that’s left the Rocky Mountain Front and prairies to its east buried in snow, including Freezout, a premier wetland/prairie complex near Fairfield where 200 species of birds have been documented with up to 300,000 white geese counted during spring migration.
“Everything’s frozen,” Lonner said.
Not only is the water frozen, nearby fields where the birds feed is covered with snow.
The timing is terrible.
Like clockwork, birds begin showing up in droves in late March at Freezoutout, which was once a watering hole for buffalo. Today it attracts birdwatchers who witness skies, water and fields turned white by massive migrating flocks of geese and swans.
During the peak of the migration, the third week of March or early in the fourth week, an average of 70,000 “white geese” — mostly snow geese and Ross’s geese — visit the 12,000-acre complex daily.
Tundra and trumpeter swans also make a pit stop at Freezout.
“We had our first snow geese yesterday, about 25 flying around, probably trying to figure out where to go,” Lonner said.
He’s already getting calls from people inquiring about the migration.
He’s not entirely sure how the migration will play out this year, for bird or birdwatchers.
“Birds are thinking, ‘It’s that time of the year,’” Lonner said. “Then they get up here, and it’s still winter. It will be an interesting next few weeks from that perspective too.”
To add to the misery, the roads within the Freezout Wildlife Management Area are clogged with snow.
“You almost need four-wheel drive to get around,” Lonner said.
Freezout, which has a main lake and six ponds, can see up to 30 to 40 percent of a million white geese that use a flyway connecting wintering grounds in places such as Mexico and central California to nesting colonies in the arctic in Canada and Alaska.
During their journey, the birds stop at Freezout to feed in the grain fields and float on the open water.
Lonner doesn’t think the birds will find conditions much better north of Montana in Canada.
He’s not sure where they will go.
“They’ll scrounge around and get what they can, but if there’s no water, they will search out places elsewhere to get what they need: food and open water,” Lonner said.
There have been other years when Freezout has frozen but there’s usually open water by the time the peak migration hits, Lonner said.
Freezout Lake is located in a glacial basin and its water is prone to freezing in the winter, hence the name.
The area was originally known as Freezout Flats because it was just generally cold, windy and inhospitable, Lonner said.
But in most years there's open water by the time the peak waterfowl migration hits, he said.