Watching huge flocks of Snow Geese swirl down from the sky, amid a cacophony of honking, is a little like standing inside a snow globe.
~Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/snow_goose/lifehistory
When I saw this quote, I said, yup, they nailed it. On almost any day from mid-December through early February, you have a good chance of seeing large flocks of Snow Geese as they fly to and from various roosting areas (usually Pungo Lake) and the fields where they feed. But what you want is to be standing next to the field they choose to land in, especially after sunrise or close to sunset. Then you have a chance to experience what I call, The Show.
Last weekend I had two groups, one in the rain and clouds on Saturday, and one on a beautiful sunny day on Sunday. It truly was weather fit for ducks on Saturday, and, true to its name, the birds were very active all day. Based on the number of gunshots heard just off the refuge, the local hunters were having a good day as well. The Snow Geese came in to a field later than usual that morning and stayed a long time before heading back to the lake. Sunday was very different – after an early morning departure, the Snow Geese returned after about an hour and spent much of the day on the lake.
The swans, meanwhile, took their time getting out to the fields to feed, and by late afternoon when we returned from Mattamuskeet, there were a few thousand Tundra Swans in some corn fields near one of the refuge roads. This is always a good sign. Snow Geese seem to like to land in fields where there are a lot of swans feeding, but this was not the field they had been in the evening before. It has been a little harder this year to predict where The Show will be as the fickle Snow Geese have been splitting up in smaller flocks and moving around a lot more than in years past. But, as we watched the swans, I saw the thin, wavy lines of Snow Geese on the horizon. So, we waited. After circling a bit over the lake, it looked as though they were headed our way.
As we watched, the leading edge of the flock streamed our way and started to circle the field, the late afternoon light casting a golden glow on the underside of the birds. Looking back at the horizon, I could see thousands of Snow Geese headed our way, and we seemed to be in just the right place….let The Show begin.
For the next 30 minutes, we stood there, mesmerized by thousands of birds flying around us and feeding in the field right next to the road. Every now and then a car would drive by, pushing the birds farther back into the field or causing large numbers to lift off and circle over us again before settling back down to their dinner of corn kernels.
I wanted the group to see some of the smaller Ross’s Geese and we soon found several on the front edge of the flock in the field next to us. We also tried to spot their smaller size in the birds flying low over our heads. Look at the photo above (best to click on it and enlarge) and see if you can find at least one Ross’s Goose – it is smaller in size, lacking the “black grin lines” found on a Snow Goose bill, and has a shorter, stubbier bill.
As darkness approached, small groups of Snow Geese began to head back to the lake along with an increasingly steady stream of swans. Finally, a car came by with its headlights on, and the rest of the Snow Geese blasted off in a blur of wings. It had been a phenomenal afternoon and The Show had been superb, with thousands of birds right on top of us. There really is nothing else like it anywhere in our region. The Snow Geese should be around a couple of more weeks before they start their long migration back to their breeding areas. One Snow Goose we reported this year had a neck collar with the code TC84. We heard back from a USFWS biologist that it was banded on its breeding area on 8/15/2011 at the South Plain of Bylot Island, Nunavut, Canada…a long way from this corn field in eastern North Carolina.
I have tours this weekend and have some availability next weekend. Contact me if you are interested in trying to get seats to The Show before the curtain closes for this year. As Chris Early writes in his excellent field guide, Waterfowl of Eastern North America…
Hundreds of these geese flying together really convey why their name is so appropriate – they look like a flurry of snowflakes. But they’re very noisy snowflakes; the sound that these flocks make is an experience in itself. A huge flight of Snow Geese is something that everyone should see (and hear) at least once in their lifetime.
Well said, Chris. I couldn’t agree more.