MINNEAPOLIS -- Clouds of ring-necked ducks arrived at Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge this fall, grouping into a massive flock of 936,600 of these birds on Oct. 31 -- a Minnesota record for the most waterfowl of one kind observed at a single time and place.
The estimate -- derived from a 25-year-old survey method -- meant that roughly half of the continental population of ring-necked ducks were feasting together on wild rice in the same shallow lake 5 miles south of McGregor in Aitkin County.
By the time the lake froze two days later, the ducks were gone, said Walt Ford, refuge manager.
"We had a great rice crop this year," he said. "Our numbers continued to rise through October. ... They never felt the need to leave."
The 18,000-acre refuge is off limits to waterfowl hunters, but the record-setting migration was a good omen, and it happened during the heart of a duck and goose season that didn't suffer from a shortage of targets.
On the down side, participation hit an all-time low based on license sales.
"It certainly was not the best season ever, but I think it turned out pretty good," said Steve Cordts of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
The 60-day season will be remembered for having a fruitful start during an unseasonably warm opening weekend in September. The early phase was followed by a hunter-friendly period of cold weather that kept birds active in late October and early November. Late November provided another productive time for hunters in certain parts of the state.
"Toward the end of duck season there were more birds around here than I've seen in a while," said Troy Richards, the DNR conservation officer assigned to the Fergus Falls area.
Richards said the late-season hunt was noticeably good in the area, including historic Lake Christina and parts west of there.