Lessons from Snow Geese

SnowGeeseBeating wings fill my view. The snow geese are stark white, and the black tips of their wings pulse in contrast with their bodies. Hundreds – no, thousands – of these meaty birds move in unison. They squawk and honk, thousands of calls melting into an urgent and persistent roar.

At least that’s what I envisioned.

I had never seen snow geese, but I set out confidently to find the birds. I wanted to feel the wind from a thousand birds taking off at once. I wanted to feel their thunderous calls in my chest.

Greater snow geese move in large groups as they migrate, and they often stop in Vermont farm fields to feed on leftover grain in spring and fall.  I assumed that finding a few thousand large, white, honking geese would be an easy task. I was wrong.

I checked for the geese at the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area in Addison, where they often stop to feed, but left empty handed. A news report I found explained that the snow geese had largely abandoned Vermont fields in exchange for New York fields, so I drove through rich farmland west of Lake Champlain. But I could not find a single bird at any of their usual haunts.

I finally caught sight of three snow geese while driving west on I-90 in New York. I saw them out of the corner of my eye. I was discouraged from my search, and I wasn’t on the lookout for the geese anymore. Against the grey March sky, the birds seemed an apparition. They did not call out, and so far as I could tell, they flapped their wings in silence. The geese were headed north at 50 mph, and I quickly lost sight of them.

After hearing my tale, a veteran birder clued me in: The pictures I found showing thousands of snow geese flying and feeding were likely taken in fall, when up to 20,000 snow geese move through Vermont in large groups. Even though as many as 6,000 snow geese can move through Vermont in spring, theirs is a scattered migration this time of year.

Feeling humbled, I decided that these birds deserved more than a few quick Google searches and a jaunts through the Champlain Valley. I’m learning several lessons in my search for the snow geese. In particular:

Dress elegantly and create a scene from time to time. Thousands of white geese slip through the sky in a cacophony of honks and squawks as they descend on wetlands and farm fields. Vermonters are especially proud that these worldly visitors stop by and show off each spring and fall.

Make travel a priority. Snow geese travel over 5,000 miles each year, from their summer breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra to their winter feeding grounds in the coastal marshes and farm fields that stretch from South Carolina to New Jersey.

Go with friends and be efficient. Snow geese form a “V” for flying long distances, and for good reason: they can fly 71% farther when they’re flying in a “V” formation than on their own. They stick together at feeding and wintering grounds, too, where lookouts keep an eye out for eagles, foxes, or other predators.

Inspire international cooperation. A group of state, federal, and provincial officials called the Atlantic Flyway Council collectively manages the birds’ populations and habitats.

Aim for success.  The Atlantic Flyway has been wildly successful at bringing populations back from the brink of extinction. In the early 1900’s, there were only a few thousand animals. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 made it illegal to hunt snow geese and suite of native birds, including other big, migratory birds like sandhill and whooping cranes. By 1980, there were approximately 200,000 greater snow geese. Today, the population has increased to about 1 million birds.

Be flexible.  The birds’ transition from “bust” to “boom” is due largely to their flexibility.  First, they’ve expanded their winter habitat. In the past, snow geese only used marshes in the Carolinas and Virginia. Warming temperatures have meant that snow geese are using a wider swath of habitat, including marshes in Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey. Second, snow geese have discovered modern agriculture. These birds have a nearly insatiable appetite for grasses, sedges, willows, and other herbaceous plants.  In the 1970’s, snow geese also started feeding in hay- and cornfields, eating grain that was left behind. Biologists took note, and worked with farmers to leave behind a grain for the birds. Today, snow geese take full advantage of the steady supply of grain, and they feed almost solely in cornfields.

Expect repercussions for your actions (or for others’ actions). Snow goose populations have increased dramatically, to the point that the birds are actually degrading their own habitat as they grub for food. When the geese arrive in the Arctic, they forage for food extensively and compromise their own breeding success. The same is true in their winter homes, so the Atlantic Flyway has opened hunting seasons in attempt to bring populations down to 500,000-750,000 birds. Eight states will have a hunting season in 2013, including Vermont. Here, the hunt runs from March 11- April 26, and hunters can take up to 15 geese per day. The State has held similar hunts since 2009, and each year Vermont hunters harvest only about 100 birds.

Leave your audience wanting more. The snow goose population’s fate ultimate fate remains to be seen, but many Vermont birders (including me!) simply want to see the birds.

Liz Brownlee is farmer trapped in a graduate student’s body. If she’s not cranking away at school work, find her playing a board game or breaking in her new steel-toe boots on a walk in Centennial Woods.

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