Last year, we arrived at the peak of the snow goose migration, thanks to a little luck and cabin fever. Our trip was also prompted by the numbers posted on the Game Commission’s website. We were thrilled to see our arrival was timed perfectly, due to our desire to “get out there” after an extremely long and frigid winter.
As I glanced through the collection of last year’s photos, I was pleasantly surprised at the numbers of snow geese Karen and I were able to capture in a single frame. Although I had seen more geese in the past, Karen was more than thrilled with the numbers.
The final report by Jim Binder, the wildlife manager at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster and Lebanon counties, last year gave little hope of the numbers returning to what had been considered normal, in years past.
“Snow Geese are increasingly spending time in the Lehigh Valley; over the past several years that area has held as many, if not more, Snow Geese than we had here,” he wrote. “Since that trend started, we haven’t eclipsed 80,000 Snow Geese in a year, whereas we used to expect 150,000.”
As we step deeper into March this year, the snow’s numbers have already eclipsed the 100,000 mark and may rise to numbers that we had seen years ago, or perhaps even higher.
I kept on top of his updates, checking two or three times a week, and walked away each time thinking of other subject matter I could photograph and write about. On March 2, Binder reported that there was still 12 inches of ice on the lake and then, on March 9, stated that only 100 snow geese were milling around the area.
We kept in mind last year’s tallies and dates during the peak migration — snow geese: 60,000+ on 03/17/14; tundra swans: 5,000+ on 03/17/14; Canada geese: several thousand on 03/11-12/14. We both realized that the snows would only stay a week or two, and the migration was something we didn’t want to miss, or have our readers miss.
When I checked last weekend, Binder reported an estimated number of about 75,000 snows were there at dawn.
“It appeared that more birds were arriving later in the morning, coming in on southerly winds,” he said. “It’s currently impossible to get an accurate estimate because the birds are spread out over a wide area, but it’s obvious that numbers have increased since daybreak.”
We started gathering our cameras and charging our batteries immediately. As I explained earlier, Snow Geese arrive at Middle Creek only once a year, and we never want to miss seeing them. The deal to go on an overcast day was sealed by two events.
The first was that a friend, Robert Checket, called from Willow Point, stating emphatically that the snows were definitely there, and we were more than happy to hear the news. After he called, I checked the Game Commission’s website one more time, just out of curiosity, and sure enough Binder had updated his report to snow geese, 110,000; tundra swans: 2,300; Canada geese 1,800; and an undetermined number of ducks, including mallards, black ducks, pintails, widgeons and ring-necked ducks.
Binder went on to add, “The lake is still almost completely ice-covered, and the birds are roosting on the ice. Duck numbers should increase along with the amount of open water. Weather forecasts, especially for wind direction, will probably put things in a holding pattern for most of this week.”
According to the Game Commission’s Wildlife Notes, “The Snow Goose, Chen caerulescens, is one of the world’s most abundant waterfowl species. Snow Geese breed in the arctic and subarctic regions of North America during spring and summer, then migrate south to spend the winter in inland and coastal areas, including Pennsylvania. They feed voraciously on vegetation, and recent population increases have led to serious damage of the species’ habitat, mainly on its breeding range, but also in some wintering areas.”
The Wildlife Notes went on to read; “It is primarily the Greater Snow Goose that winters in Pennsylvania. The Lesser Snow Goose’s U.S. wintering range has traditionally been a column sweeping from north to south through the Midwest part of the country, not reaching as far east as Pennsylvania. As the range of the Lesser Snow Goose expands, however, Blue Phase Geese are being seen infrequently on Pennsylvania wintering grounds.”
Arriving on Monday the 16th, I was more than happy that the lower section of the “trail loop,” (the “Wildlife Viewing Drive,” alternately known as “the tour road”), was open. This road allows visitors to tour far more of the property and drive between the fields that the snows are most attracted to. We were immediately greeted by thousands of snow geese, and that’s not an exaggeration! Although some of the fields still held actual “snow,” more of them held snow geese.
We clicked away, moved and found Karen the only “Porta John” on the property — noting one very important improvement the Game Commission could make — and hit the loop again, to find even more snow geese. Readers should take note that the Visitors Center is closed on Mondays, where more convenient restrooms can be found.
My hat is off to anyone that can count that many geese, but we’re happy they try. At times, we simply sat there and listened to the whirl of wings and what Aldo Leopold called “Goose Music.”
When we arrived back home, I downloaded over 1,000 photos and deleted almost half of those. But looking at those photos makes us want to return time and again. Along with those snows, we saw Canada geese, several species of ducks and tundra swans. As expected, we were not alone, and the roads were packed with vehicles and photographers with cellphones and cameras with lenses that would set anyone back 5 grand or more.
Around 1900, the population of Chen caerulescens had ebbed to only 2,000 to 3,000 birds. During the 20th century and into the 21st century, the population has burgeoned as snow geese have begun taking advantage of farm crops, including waste grain, along migration routes and in wintering areas. In some areas, populations have increased as much as 9 percent per year. Biologists estimate that there are now 5 million to 6 million snow geese in North America, a population that may be too large to be environmentally sustainable, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
It’s safe to say it is time to head to Middle Creek and find one of those places few men or women have ever seen. Locate Hopeland Road in Kleinfeltersville, and you will have arrived at a place you will long for year after year. If you need additional information or assistance, call the Visitors Center at 717-733-1512.