Nature Show Extraordinaire- Snow Geese at Middlecreek

Nature Show Extraordinaire- Snow Geese at Middlecreek Wildlife Management Area

Snow Geese

Cindy Ross

(It’s time to start thinking about making a pilgrimage to Middlecreek- This story just appeared in Pennsylvania Game News- call the center for updates of birds- 717-733-1512

The sky is beginning to glow pink as I bank the turn into the entrance of Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, which straddles Lebanon and Lancaster Counties in Pennsylvania. My children and I hurry down the Willow Point Trail with a sense of urgency, not wanting to miss the show that is about to begin.

Although we can’t see the estimated 120,000 snow geese floating on the sheltered lagoon, we hear their communal voices. It’s March and these magnificent white birds have adopted Middle Creek as home for only a few weeks during their migratory passage to the Arctic region. After resting and fattening up in local farm fields, they’ll continue their journey north to Canada’s St. Lawrence River, ending eventually at their Arctic breeding grounds mostly on Baffin and Bylot Islands.

The first streaks of light enable us to make out the bobbing white bodies blanketing the dark lake. They have very slowly, almost imperceptibly, begun to spread out onto the larger body of the 400-acre lake to position themselves for take-off.

Suddenly, the cold morning air is filled with the honking and calling of geese communicating their readiness to leave. Their voices build in volume and excitement until they are almost yelling. Beating their wings in a massive challenge to the laws of gravity, they rise up from the lake in a great sweeping wave that fills the air around us. Thousands and thousands of white birds, their brilliant bodies reflecting the sunrise, swirl around our heads in a united moving arch.

They engulf us. We throw back our heads to watch them rise. We are in the moment, almost one with the great wave. In a matter of seconds, they’ve disappeared in search of food.

They will not return until the last dim light of day intersects with the emerging evening sky. The show is over, and we are left, earthbound and speechless, to ponder the vastness of their world.

The Greater Snow Goose’s presence is a relatively recent phenomenon at Middle Creek, which was built in the early ‘70’s with an idea to attract wildlife. It is located on the Atlantic Flyway but ten years ago, it was news if a few thousand snow geese stopped off on their 3,000-mile journey.

Then, in 1997, their migration pattern changed as the flock size increased, resulting in the arrival here of approximately 150,000 birds. The PA Game Commission’s Jim Binder, manager of the facility, explains their presence as a basic search for food. Snow geese traditionally wintered on coastal salt marshes where they would feed on salt marsh grasses, anywhere from southern New Jersey down to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, with the largest concentrations on the coast of Delaware. Increased numbers required them to adapt to new food sources found in agricultural fields of southcentral Pennsylvania.

The PA Game Commission works in coordination with local farmers to plant corn,  small grains and hay on a rotating system. Once here, the geese go out to the neighboring farms to pick at the leftover waste grain and winter wheat, traveling up to 40 miles in a single stint to find the choicest morsels. Because they need so much nutrition for the long flight to the Arctic, feeding on agricultural lands allows them to go back to the breeding grounds in much better shape. Birds feeding on waste grain is not a problem for farmers but too much grazing of winter wheat can affect productivity, and snow geese have a tendency to sometimes uproot the plants.

As the steward for the land and the wildlife, Binder finds their presence and their numbers extraordinary, although he knows their numbers are scary. Their population is way out of whack and has been climbing for 40 years. Climate change may be contributing with the mild weather & early springs, coupled with a long life span of up to 20 years. A past history of restricted hunting regulations and a decrease in hunter harvest rates has also probably contributed to the population explosion, as well as the birds’ recently-acquired taste for corn and waste grain left in the agricultural fields. Their numbers have steadily increased at an annual rate of 8% and if sustained, they’re projected to reach 2 million birds by 2015 and 3 million by 2020.

To try to remedy the snow gooses overpopulation problem, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has approved a Conservation Order for snow geese in the last few years. This special management action was authorized by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act to control certain wildlife populations when traditional management programs are unsuccessful in reducing overabundant wildlife populations. Federal and state regulations have relaxed allowing for increased bag limits and additional harvest. Waterfowl managers have estimated a healthy population of no more than 500,000.

Snow goose visitation peaked in 2007 at 180,000. The last few years, they haven’t cracked 100,000, Binder said. But this may not be an indication that they are approaching healthier numbers. The birds have begun to spread out longitudinally and are being spotted in quarries in the Lehigh Valley, where spring fed limestone waters remain ice free for longer periods of time. The snow geese need not only open fields to feed in, but prefer open water to roost in. They can tolerate ice roosting for a number of days, even weeks, but then the threat from predators increases. Binder has occasionally heard quite a ruckus on the frozen lake at night, knowing that something had the birds stirred up. The birds have been known to return to the Atlantic Coast and the Chesapeake and Delaware Bay areas if winter rears its ugly head again after warming up.

I am curious how the staff estimates the numbers and Binder explains that he and his colleagues try to get a look at the birds from strategic spots at first light before the birds take flight by using spotting scopes. It’s important to view the flocks from a vantage point higher than the birds themselves, viewed from the side a flock is difficult to estimate, from above you can get an idea of how much area they cover. Through experience, after a while you get a pretty good idea of what ten thousand snow geese look like, then you can estimate their total number by those increments. Or, if the birds are spread out, you can use “field of view” with binoculars. Estimate how many are in your field of view, say 5,000, then pan across the birds counting in that increment. To keep in practice, they sometimes start at the edge of a flock and count ten birds, noting how much space they cover. Then a hundred, then a thousand. It’s surprising how small an area perhaps 250 snow geese will occupy, they are densely flocked birds.

Binder stressed that the numbers they provide to the public are gross estimates and subject to rapid and dramatic change. The estimates are probably conservative, however many snow geese you think you’re looking at there are probably actually more. They no longer spend a lot of time trying to get exact counts, as the numbers seen here are not necessarily indicative of population trends, they simply indicate how many birds are spending time here in a given year. The only reason the staff currently attempts to get estimates is that people want to know, and the staff is curious as well.

Suddenly, we hear a crack, and I know that in a nearby field, hunters are taking their aim. Years ago, I hunted Canada geese in a Middle Creek blind before a single snow goose arrived. Now, snow goose hunting is considered one of the most challenging of all types of hunting.

I spoke with Andy Dively, a snow goose guide who explains that one of the reasons is because they have a 1 to 1 response to decoy ratio. A flock of 100 likes to see a field of 100 decoys before joining the dinner table. A flock of three thousand (not uncommon) feels more comfortable with 3,000 comrades. We’re talking serious decoy numbers. And they are incredible skittish. The juveniles often come in first as the older wary ones hang back and scope out the situation. If only one is uncomfortable, that bird will make an announcement and the show is over, not to return.

Dively explains that snow goose hunting is a field hunt. He places his hunters in a layout or coffin blind- metal frame with camo material over it that is built like a sleeping bag. You lie on your back with a slight headrest, close the doors around you, put the mesh flap over your face. Your buddies lie on either side in a row, about 5 feet apart. They chatter, play an adult version of “whisper down the lane,’ nap, wait.

Wind direction dictates everything. When setting up, the wind is placed at your back, for the geese like to land into the wind, helping them slow down. The thousands of decoys are arranged in a triangular fashion getting wider and thinner as they span out. The geese want to land where it is thickest, where more geese appear to be eating, where there is more food, which is around the blinds.

The geese can be seen about a mile away but you can’t hear them until they’re maybe 400 yards away. They circle two or three times to get a good look, and come in at the hunter’s feet. Two electronic callers are working, run on two systems with four speakers, using 2 different voices. (Electronic callers are authorized only in Special Conservation Season). At the top of the triangle are aggressive feeding sounds and where the decoys thin out, they bark and gabble sounding content and hanging out. Snow goose hunting has turned into an unbelievable science.

The draw for Andy is the challenge. Every single hunt is different. Hunting one hundred birds can be easier than 5,000.

One hunter- usually in the middle of the line- is designated person who calls the shot-. “Take aim,” he announces and the “dead” rise up and shoot. The hunter on the far right can aim to 2 pm and the far left to 10 am. The one in the middle aims up and front. The very best of trusting hunting buddies need only apply to this type of hunt. Most of the boys have been hunting together for over 10 years.

“When a big flock comes in, it is like a wall of white. You have the sensation of hearing and seeing but it is so overwhelming, even the odor is so strong for the birds have spent the last few months crapping like crazy and walking in it. It is so hard to differentiate 15 feet from 15 yards, so everyone’s first shot is a flock shoot. Maybe each hunter kills one. Then they realize what they’ve done and begin to pick out individual birds.

“The guys want a show. They want to lose their minds. It can happen. I’ve seen 65-year old men who have traveled the world big game hunting and their hands shake so violently when the geese come in that they can’t shoot and then they wet their pants. This is what keeps me going, and coming back day after day. The success and the joy of my hunters makes it worthwhile.”

Because this type of hunt is so challenging, Andy’s services are in high demand. He guides 6 out of 7 days a week and leads approximately 50-60 paid hunts a year.

Binder says you can come to the Middle Creek area and try your hand at snow goose hunting on your own, but opportunities are limited. One way would entail securing a blind permit for Canada goose season, hoping an early snow goose wanders north. Sometimes, while Canada goose season is still open and the blinds are operational, there may be some snow geese around but few are taken from the blinds here. Perhaps the blinds are too close to the roosting lake, it seems snow geese want to fly off somewhere once they get up.

One reason the blinds at Middle Creek are not currently opened specifically for snow geese is that it is believed that relatively few would be taken, and disturbance to other migrating waterfowl must be taken into consideration. Or, you can hunt by pass shooting- just standing and waiting, hoping geese fly over, although hunters only see marginal success this way. The other option is to knock on local farmers’ doors, asking permission to hunt their fields. Some already lease their land out but others are open to friendly, polite, ethical hunters. If the land is not leased, farmers may welcome hunters in hopes of keeping large flocks of hungry snow geese out of their fields.

By the very end of March, most of the great numbers of snow geese will have made their way north to the St. Lawrence Seaway. But the hunting season will extend unto April 16th with a daily bag limit of 25 geese per day every day.

When our day draws to a close, we go down to the lake where the swans like to congregate and wait for the sun to set and the huge flocks of geese to return. We scan the heavens, not knowing what portion will serve as their entrance. Excitedly, we spot the first few flocks of geese and eagerly watch their dynamic formations fill the sky. Tiny specks, like endless layers of pepper flakes shaken across the sky, materialize into ascending bird shapes. They swarm and fly in circles, looking for a good patch of water for landing. And they are busy talking. Binder says the migrant geese communicate to each other often, especially as they take off and land. All of that chatter is extraordinary and quite a contrast to the local (Canadian) Canada geese who reside in quiet familiarity with the land.

The snow geese arrive to Middle Creek as early as late January but your best bet is the last two weeks in February to the first two weeks in March, provided that there is not much snow on the ground and not much ice on the lake. Conditions are what drives this phenomenon; more snow and ice means less birds, less snow and ice means more birds during their migration time frame.

For waterfowl viewing, you can also expect to find flocks of up to 10,000 or more tundra swans, (whistling swans) with their 7-foot wingspans and beautiful musical voices. Middle Creek also hosts up to 10,000 migrating Canada geese and a sizeable number of mallards and black ducks along with a host of other duck species. A resident pair of nesting eagles has also been known to put on a show, taking the occasional snow goose.

As the snow geese settle in for the evening, we drive home still tracking the oncoming geese heading for rest and shelter at Middle Creek. Silhouetted against the fading orange sky, the last snow geese straggle in, bringing down the final curtain of the day. The Arctic is still a long flight away.

Posted in: Travel Story

2 thoughts on “Nature Show Extraordinaire- Snow Geese at Middlecreek Leave a comment

    1. we go every year- a few times- morning and evening- morning is tough to get up before dawn and drive there but it is the best- you call the center and wait for the numbers to arrive- usually early march- 717-733-1512

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