by Cathy Bell
(originally posted on vtdigger.org)
Every autumn, thousands of snow geese take a break from their 5,000 mile southbound migration to rest and feed at Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area in Addison, Vermont. Journeying from their breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra to their winter range in the mid-Atlantic and southeastern states, the snow geese are but fleeting visitors to the Green Mountain State, descending on our cornfields from October into early November.
The bright white feathers of a snow goose’s body contrast with tips of the wings, which look as though they have been dipped in paint of the richest black. Young birds are brushed with gray on their backs, giving them a dirty appearance. Here and there among the flocks are dark gray individuals with white faces. These steely-looking birds, commonly known as “blue geese,” are the same species as the white ones. Snow geese of either coloration are far prettier, to my eye, than our resident Canada geese. Getting to see these visitors from the north is a seasonal treat.
Hoping to find some snow geese, I went to Dead Creek on Saturday, October 30. The day started out sunny but clouded up as the big Halloween nor’easter worked its way towards New England. Driving down Route 22A from the north, I made a right turn onto Route 17. I had gone less than a mile from Addison Four Corners when I saw a wheeling flock of waterfowl. Backlit, the winged forms did not reveal any details of their plumage, but the size and flight pattern didn’t seem quite right for Canada geese. Even as I thought to myself that I must be in the right place, I saw a turnoff on the south side of the road. I pulled off the highway, shut off the ignition, and hopped out of the car, binoculars in hand. Looking to the south, I felt my jaw drop in wonder.
About 800 geese were in a field very close by, in easy sight of a viewing platform with interpretive signs. Hundreds more were in a distant depression. From the knot of people with binoculars and spotting scopes a quarter mile to the west, I guessed there was another—possibly even bigger—group of geese over there too. Aerial photo counts that weekend documented more than 4,600 geese in the area, but few people braved the chill wind of the gray afternoon to witness the impressive spectacle.
A northern harrier, its white rump patch catching the watery light, startled the nearest geese into rising from where they rested and fed. Within moments, the nervousness of a few waterfowl swept through the flock, and hundreds of birds were in the air, honking their discontent in a higher-pitched and more tremulous voice than that of the familiar Canada goose.
Though I looked carefully, I failed to find any Ross’s geese among the swirling clouds of white waterfowl. Snow geese and Ross’s geese are two distinct species, though very similar in appearance; the rarer Ross’s is more diminutive in build and has a smaller bill. I later read on the Vermont bird listserv that there were indeed two Ross’s geese at Dead Creek that afternoon, but they were the needles in the haystack of thousands of snow geese.
I may have lucked into witnessing the peak of this year’s snow goose migration, but there’s still time for you to see the spectacular waterfowl as they pass through Vermont.
At 2,858 acres, Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area is administered by Vermont Fish and Wildlife and includes extensive reaches of cattail marsh and stretches of open water. The geese, however, are concentrated in upland agricultural fields. The designated goose viewing area along Route 17 is the best place to see the birds, but a little farther south, Gage Road can provide good sightings as well.
Moreover, though the snow geese may be the star attraction, there is more here for inquisitive visitors to enjoy. Northern shovelers and green-winged teal dabble in the shallow, ponded water of the fields, and once in a while a pectoral sandpiper passes by overhead. A quarter mile west of the goose viewing turnoff, Route 17 crosses the still, murky waters of Dead Creek. Mallards and black ducks ply the waters here. Just over the bridge, a left turn takes you down a gravel road towards a hunters’ camping area. Look along the reedy edges of the water for great blue herons and wood ducks. Despite its name, Dead Creek is a lively place.
The creek flows northward, parallel to the southernmost portion of Lake Champlain. Just seven miles north of where it flows under Route 17, the creek joins with Otter Creek and soon wends its way into the lake. Its meandering path has been modified by the addition of dams, and today, the state actively manages water levels in the flooded impoundments.
The snow goose hunting season runs from October 1 – December 29 in the Lake Champlain waterfowl hunting zone, with a daily bag limit of 25 birds. Portions of the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area, including the upland areas south of Route 17 near the viewing area, are managed as a refuge where no hunting or other public access is permitted.