Duluth radar picks up enormous flock of ducks over Aitkin County

Enough ducks to darken the sky, and to fool the Doppler radar.

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Ring-necked ducks fly over Rice Lake on Oct. 1, 2019. (Tyler Schank /

When a mysterious pattern appeared on their radar screens Wednesday morning, hovering over Aitkin County, the staff at the National Weather Service in Duluth puzzled over what it might be.

"The first thought that jumped to mind was possibly smoke from a wildfire, or a large structure fire, or perhaps a prescribed burn occurring," said meteorologist Kevin Huyck.

But he said it wasn't a fire, not even close. The strange pattern was an estimated 670,000 ring-necked ducks taking off from Rice Lake, south of McGregor.

Enough ducks to darken the sky, and to fool the Doppler radar nearly 60 miles away in Duluth.

As the name suggests, the lake produces a lot of wild rice — which in turn attracts the birds. It’s considered one of the most important migration rest and feeding stops for the species, which nest each spring on remote, boggy lakes in far northern Minnesota and across forested provinces and territories of Canada. The News Tribune reported on the phenomenon earlier this month.


After initially guessing the strange radar pattern might be smoke, Huyck said the Weather Service made a bunch of phone calls. First to the Aitkin County sheriff, then to an interagency wildfire task force. Nobody knew about a fire.

"So, then we kept digging for information (and) eventually contacted the Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge office there in McGregor, and they told us they were conducting the waterfowl survey," he said.

When the wildlife survey crew took to the water in their airboat Wednesday morning, the hundreds of thousands of ducks took off from the water and into the path of radar signals.

Huyck said it’s actually pretty common; a lot of different things can look like a weather system on his radar screen.

"Large quantity of smoke, birds, insects. Our neighbors down to the south, down in the La Crosse area, routinely pick up summer mayfly hatches on their radar," he said.

He said the answer to Wednesday's mystery was good news. Most people would agree — it’s better to have half a million ducks, than a wildfire.

The News Tribune contributed to this report.  Minnesota Public Radio News can be heard in Duluth at 100.5 FM or online at

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