But many are missing this adventure and the magic of myriad geese
By Joe Kosack
Wildlife Conservation Education Specialist
Pennsylvania Game Commission
KLEINFELTERSVILLE – A sudden rising chatter signals the greater snow geese on Middle Creek’s calm, icy waters are synchronizing for their morning departure. The crescendo climaxes in the serenity and shadows of sunrise with a spectacular upheaval over the water that every nature-lover must see.
With a force only nature could provide, tens of thousands of greater snow geese rise from the waters off Willow Point at the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in follow-the-leader formations that make more sense to watchers the further the geese get from the water. Amid the chaotic liftoff, though, there is calmness among the participants, almost to a bird. This is casual for them. Life as they know it, sort of like heading to work in Manhattan every morning.
But the snow goose’s unflappable expressions neither cheapen the show at sunrise nor the sideshows that occur at Middle Creek throughout the day. Coming to Middle Creek when large numbers of greater snow geese and tundra swans are staging there to push further north in spring migration is an adventure you won’t forget. You’ll see nature unbound, in your face and percolating with spontaneity. It is worth a daytrip or weekend to see. You’ll know that when you’re leaving.
With the ongoing mild winter, snow geese have been converging on Middle Creek earlier and soon may be heading north. So, if you’re looking to see the magic of this spectacular show, plan to head to Middle Creek soon. If you can, and you want a front row seat, go to Willow Point before sunrise. Expect company. Expect cold. And expect a sweeping panoramic view of the unfolding action.
“Once you’ve been to Willow Point at sunrise to catch the action, you’ll be back,” explained Carl G. Roe, Game Commission executive director. “When those snow geese take flight, you’re mesmerized by the masses and even individual birds; every wing stroke, every formation shift. You’ll wonder, ‘Where are they going?’ and “Why did they do that?’ They consume your every thought.”
The stark, white bodies of the geese and swans tend to have a hypnotic effect on your concentration as you take in the lake and the drab winter background surrounding it. Next to the sun, they’re the brightest objects out there. And they’re a lot easier to watch than that fat, old sun.
Middle Creek hasn’t always been grand central station for greater snow geese returning north to breeding grounds in spring. As recently as the 1980s, only several hundred stopped over on migrations north. That was partly related to Middle Creek’s relative newness – built in the early 1970s – and the limited number of greater snow geese in the Atlantic Flyway. Data collected in the St. Lawrence River valley – where the continent’s entire greater snow goose population stops over in migration – in the late 1960s showed North America had no more than 25,000 snow geese at that time. Over the last 30 years, things have changed in the flyway and at Middle Creek.
Today, the flyway has a million or more snows, and some springs have seen 150,000 to 170,000 snow geese holed up resting at Middle Creek waiting for a stiff southern wind to help them push further north. The migration stretches from wintering areas in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia about 2,500 miles north to nesting areas in the Canadian Arctic. The snow goose’s main breeding colony is on Bylot Island, one of the largest uninhabited islands – 4,273 square miles – in the world.
The Atlantic Flyway primarily is used by greater snow geese. If they fly near the Alleghenies, they’ll need to reprogram their internal GPS unit or find a better point goose. The lesser snow goose and Ross’ goose tend to migrate mostly on flyways west of the Atlantic Flyway.
“Snow geese once fed almost exclusively on vegetation in coastal salt marsh habitats,” said John Dunn, Game Commission Game Management Division chief. “Changing environmental conditions – including milder summers on the Arctic breeding grounds – and increasing corn and winter wheat production near migratory staging and wintering grounds, caused a change in feeding behavior and led to better conditioned snow geese and an associated reduction in their mortality rates. That led to increased survival, improved reproduction and the population explosion we have seen.”
Today, Middle Creek in late February and early March harbors snow geese in numbers that rival the continent’s population only 30 years ago. In some ways, that’s good. Their population has recovered from a plunge that surely could have been a one-way ticket to join the passenger pigeon. But now they are back and have become a colossal problem.
The overwhelming presence of snow geese is now upsetting established food webs and ecological tolerances in wintering and breeding areas and migratory stopovers along their continental flyway. It’s an unlikely problem for a migratory species, and especially one with the snow goose’s history. But it’s real and being addressed collectively by wildlife conservation agencies through increased hunting seasons and bag limits.
Consequently, hunters are as interested as tourists and birdwatchers in snow geese arriving in Pennsylvania and at Middle Creek. Of course, their aim is different – both literally and figuratively – but their consumptive interest in snow geese is no less important to the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service than the recreation snow geese provide others.
“Hunters are our best hope to fix the continent’s runaway snow goose population before its damage becomes irreversible on wintering and breeding grounds,” Dunn said. “They’re interested in helping, but there’s a tremendous amount of work to do to right the ship. Landowner willingness to provide hunter access is essential to the effectiveness of this effort.”
On a great morning on Willow Point, you may see 100,000 snow geese resting on the impoundment’s surface at daybreak. That would represent only 10 percent of North America’s current population. Thinking about what it takes to feed that floating army, it becomes clear quickly that each day they can strip acres of spring shoots and piles of waste grain. So far, Middle Creek and the surrounding area have been able sustain their needs with limited habitat losses and agricultural damages. But if a larger percentage of the North America’s snows come to Middle Creek, or the continental population continues to grow, satisfying the white horde’s needs may become impossible.
For now, though, things are relatively stable at Middle Creek. So if you come, enjoy the show and remember that the hunters you may see in the fields off the wildlife management area are trying to help to improve snow goose conservation, and that they, through the purchase of hunting licenses, finance waterfowl management in the Commonwealth. They’re the good guys.
If you’re planning to come for the day, bring clothing, including a wind-breaking garment, to keep you warm – especially if you’re going out to Willow Point; some drinks and food; binoculars and a bird guide; and your patience. Traffic can be heavy at times, and parking is limited in some places. Also, pay attention to the posted signs and upon your arrival stop by the recently renovated Visitors Center, where you can acquire free brochures and talk to folks who can answer your questions.
Visitors are reminded that the roads used for the self-guided driving tour through Middle Creek’s interior are closed currently to vehicular traffic. They will open March 1, weather permitting. Additionally, the Visitors Center is closed Mondays.
To monitor snow goose and tundra swan numbers at Middle Creek, visit the Game Commission website – www.pgc.state.pa.us. Waterfowl Migration Updates can be accessed on the homepage, and further background information on Middle Creek can be obtained by clicking on Middle Creek WMA under “Quick Clicks” on the homepage.
On a final note, don’t spend all of your time looking for snow geese. Middle Creek, at this time of the year, also has bald eagles, tundra swans, northern harriers, short-eared owls, not to mention a plethora of waterfowl species ranging from ring-necked ducks and redheads to common mergansers and northern shovelers. Timing, location, optics and luck all play a role in getting a good look at these birds. So do your homework, get to Middle Creek and make it happen!