Home / Blogs / Spring Means Snow
February 6, 2023
Photo credit: birdingbnb.com
The late winter air is cold and crisp. A dusting of snow has fallen overnight, covering the crop fields that surround the reservoir. The morning sun breaks over the horizon and reflects off the water. An incessant ‘honking’ reverberates through the air. Scores of people stand in the cold with cameras and binoculars ready, waiting patiently to observe the spectacle that is about to unfold. In an instant, it happens. A bald eagle sweeps across the sky and sensing danger, tens of thousands of snow geese simultaneously take flight. The honking immediately ceases and is replaced by deafening wingbeats and the snapping of camera shutters. The onlookers gasp in awe with their eyes to the skies, as the snow goose swarm explodes overhead. This is what they have come to see-thousands upon thousands of snow geese taking off in unison. It’s a spectacle unlike any other in our region. Some of the birds break away from the main flock and head to nearby fields to feed. Other groups drop back onto the lake. A large group begins to ‘tornado,’ forming vast intertwined spirals that contain hundreds, or possibly thousands, of birds. It is truly a sight to behold and it happens each spring, right here in the Chesapeake watershed.
A flock of snow geese lands on a farm pond in Berks County, Pennsylvania (Photo by Jim Kauffman).
The snow goose (Anser caerulescens) migration is an annual event that many of us within the Chesapeake Bay region look forward to each year. Each spring, millions of snow geese touch down throughout the Chesapeake Bay region as they travel from their wintering grounds around the Bay back to their breeding grounds in the arctic tundra. After spending their winters using tidal marshes, wetlands, and rivers around the Bay, snow geese travel north as temperatures warm and lakes thaw. The timing of this mass migration varies annually, depending on temperatures and ice cover. But typically, snow geese are traveling through our region from January through April, with numbers peaking during late February and early March.
Historically, snow geese in the east migrated over large expanses of forest. After breeding in the arctic tundra, this species headed south to the Chesapeake Bay where they spent most of the winter. In addition to these historic wintering grounds, snow geese now exploit human-altered landscapes where open water and agricultural fields provide habitat and food throughout the winter. As a result, snow goose populations have exploded and are likely more numerous than they have ever been. There are so many geese, in fact, that they are negatively impacting their arctic habitats through overgrazing. Snow geese are voracious feeders, moving across harvested farm fields in gigantic flocks that devour waste grain and grasses at an incredible pace. In some areas, arctic tundra habitats are being negatively impacted as the geese remove the stems and roots of grasses as they feed. To help manage population numbers, liberal hunting seasons have been implemented that allow hunters to harvest up to 25 birds per day in some states.
Hunters set up a decoy spread to attract migrating snow geese during the conservation hunting season (Photo by Jim Kauffman).
Nature enthusiasts, birdwatchers, and hunters all ‘flock’ to the Bay region each spring to experience the vast numbers of snow geese. They are often observed on bodies of water where they congregate to roost. During migration or daily feeding trips, large flocks can also be seen in the air, flying at altitudes up to 7500 feet! For this reason, they are sometimes only heard and not seen. But when they drop into farm fields along roadways, there is no mistaking them. It’s quite common to observe large groups of snow geese while driving through the farm country of Delmarva and southern Pennsylvania.
A swarm of snow geese taking flight (Photo credit: pennlive.com).
One of the best places to observe the vast flocks of snow geese is Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lebanon and Lancaster Counties of Pennsylvania. Middle Creek contains a large man-made reservoir that is utilized each spring by migrating snow geese, Canada geese, tundra swans, and many other waterfowl species. Visiting Middlecreek on a late winter or early spring morning is a great way to shake off the winter blues, get outside, and witness the snow goose spectacle first-hand. I encourage all wildlife enthusiasts to make a trip to Middle Creek to witness it for yourself! Just remember to arrive early, bring your binoculars, and have a pair of hand warmers ready!
A snow goose enthusiast observes a flock of snow geese at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area (Photo credit: lancasteronline.com).
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