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March 5, 2021
I find that few experiences live up to the hype you hear as an excited friend tells you about something that you just have to see. Most of these stories are exaggerated versions of what truly took place, but eleven years ago, as I made a pre-dawn walk on Willow Point Trail, I was about to learn how the Middle Creek snow goose migration is not one of those types of stories.
In fact, after over a decade of visiting the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area to see this annual spectacle, I’ve found no combination of long lens, wide lens, photos, timelapse, audio, or video comes close to capturing what it’s like to be there. The audible and visual sensory overload as tens of thousands of birds simultaneously take flight is something you have to see to believe. At times, it can feel like you’re standing in a real-life snow globe surrounded by an inconceivable number of snow geese as they lift off the water.
Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area is located on the border of Pennsylvania’s Lancaster and Lebanon counties. Created by the Pennsylvania Game Commission in the 1970s, Middle Creek features a 400-acre lake surrounded by nearly 6,000 acres of wetlands, forests, and fields. Between late February and early March, snow geese, tundra swans, and Canada geese use Middle Creek as a pit stop on their long migration route to northern Canada.
Before departing on their journey past Middle Creek, the geese overwinter on the Atlantic Coastal Plain, including the Chesapeake Bay. It is not uncommon to find flocks of 100,000 snow geese on the Bays eastern and western shores; however, wintering waterfowl on the Chesapeake is not limited to snow geese. Nearly one million waterfowl like redheads, bufflehead, canvasback, surf scooters, gadwalls, etc., winter on the Bay. This equates to approximately one-third of the Atlantic coast migratory population.
In addition to the migration, Middle Creek visitors can catch a glimpse of a range of other waterfowl, including tundra swans, black ducks, green-winged teal, northern pintails, buffleheads, loons, mergansers, and wood ducks. If you miss the migration, there’s always an opportunity to see some of Middle Creek’s resident Canada geese, belted kingfishers, American kestrels, red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, white-tailed deer, red fox, and eastern coyotes.
In the fall, Middle Creek creates another attraction as hunters have an opportunity to enter a lottery-based drawing for a chance to hunt out of one of the areas controlled hunting blinds. In November, I had the chance to be a visitor in a blind that my son won through the youth only blind drawing, as well as a second opportunity, this time as an actual hunter, in a blind that my father-in-law won. Measured by the number of birds harvested, I will tell you that my hunt was very, very unsuccessful. However, if measured by the experience of spending Thanksgiving morning in a pit blind with my son, dad, father-in-law, and bird dog and have the opportunity to call in my son’s first duck, it was an unbelievable success. Like the migration experience, it’s hard to describe the connection you feel with nature through these opportunities.
Middle Creek is a magical place. It’s a beautiful working example of what happens when conservation, education, and stewardship come together. I originally traveled to Middle Creek after hearing tales of it sounding like a jet engine as 100,000 snow geese take flight at sunrise. I had big expectations, and the reality of the situation did not disappoint. This past Thursday, eleven years after my initial visit, my son and I awoke to a 3:30 AM alarm and made the trek to Middle Creek. We were the first to arrive at Willow Point, and although it was too dark to see, we didn’t need our vision to know that 70,000 geese blanketed the lake in front of us. An hour later, as the birds took flight, my son expressed that he had to double-check that there wasn’t an actual jet flying over.
It’s impossible to partake in these experiences without feeling the connection to wild creatures and wild places that we all crave. It isn’t too late to experience this year’s migration. Visit the official Waterfowl Migration Update page for detailed reports and a live feed of the action.
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