Don’t refuse to go on an occasional wild goose chase – that’s what wild geese are for.
~Henry J. Haskins
I am lucky in retirement to have more time to seek out places that provide a wildlife spectacle. There is something transformative about witnessing masses of animals in a wild place. This time of year, one of the true spectacles at many of our wildlife refuges in the East, is the concentration of waterfowl of various species on their wintering grounds. One of my favorite sights and sounds of winter is a huge flock of Snow Geese flying overhead. So, about a week ago, I went north to Chincoteague looking for waterfowl. It snowed on my second day, and the next morning I went out one last time looking for large flocks, hoping the cold and wind might concentrate them.
The flock was there but easy to miss as they were hunkered down on an over-wash fan on the sound side of the beach parking area. There were maybe a little more than a hundred Snow Geese in this group. I pulled up to watch and not a goose moved for several minutes. With temperatures in the teens and a strong wind, I didn’t blame them.
Finally, a few got up and walked toward the marsh to feed when another hundred or so flew in.
In areas with extensive marshes, Snow Geese tend to grub up the marsh grasses, consuming almost any part of the plant from roots to stems, to leaves.
This grubbing behavior often leads to the white head, neck, and breast feathers having a rust-colored stained appearance due to the mineral content of the mud. I rarely see this on the Snow Geese at Pungo, as they tend to feed more on waste grain in agricultural fields.
Before leaving, I did see a goose with a different color – blood red. This goose had been injured (shot perhaps?) and had been bleeding somewhere on the head or neck. After watching the bird for several minutes, it seemed to be doing well, moving normally and feeding with the others in the marsh.
With relatively few birds at Chincoteague, and one more day to look for large flocks, I headed back to my favorite place, the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, to spend my last day on the road searching for snows.
I arrived at Pungo late in the afternoon. The light was gorgeous coming into a recently cut corn field adjacent to one of the main roads on the refuge. There were a few thousand Tundra Swans feeding on the corn and many more flying in. This was a good sign, as large flocks of swans often attract the Snow Geese as they search for a late day feeding. I pulled off the road, along with a couple of other cars, to take it all in. I didn’t have to wait long. At first, about 50 Snow Geese flew in, circled, and landed among their taller cousins. Then I saw them coming, a huge flock flying in from the lake. I jumped out and quickly put the camera on a tripod and started recording…
The flock did its usual thing, noisily circling the field, breaking up into a couple of white clouds, and started landing. A lot of the swans decided it was time to head back to the lake with all the commotion starting, so the scene was chaotic with birds circling, others leaving, and everyone making a lot of noise. It is tough to take it all in. I certainly can see how flocks can confuse predators, as I found myself not knowing which way to look or point the camera, since there was something happening in all directions. This was all repeated the next evening, so these photos are from two afternoon shows.
This is what I wanted to see, the large swirls of birds in the sky, the late afternoon light tinging their bodies and wings with hints of gold. An almost full moon overhead added a touch of elegance to the scene, as did the graceful swans.
Both evenings, the sea of white moved closer to the edge of the road where I stood, getting access to the corn that remained uneaten. The geese kept coming in, streaming down among the swans, who seemed disturbed by the interlopers in their field.
Noticeable among the white birds are several of the darker color morphs. Long believed to be a separate species, the Blue Goose, these are now known to be a color morph of the race of Lesser Snow Geese. This color variation is controlled by a single gene. The two color morphs can mate with each other and produce young of either or both colors.
Near the edge of the churning flock, I spot a diminutive Ross’s Goose. roughly half the size of a Snow Goose, but otherwise very similar. Their bill is shorter and lacks the black “grin line” of a Snow Goose, but that feature is not always easy to discern as their heads bob up and down while feeding.
A car pulls up, and people jump out, and the birds close to them blast off with a deafening sound of squawks and wings. With a telephoto lens, I just capture a tiny window of the scene….imagine it one thousand fold for a sense of the immensity of the upward moving snow storm. They circle and land again. The wind is coming from my back, as is the sun, causing the beautifully lit birds to land facing my camera, just what you want for capturing images of winged snowflakes.
Populations of Snow Geese have increased dramatically since the early 1900’s, when hunting was stopped due to low numbers. It resumed again in 1975 after populations had recovered. The numbers have continued to grow, causing some scientists and managers to think that the tundra nesting habitat of Snow Geese is beginning to suffer from such high concentrations of feeding birds in summer. They are now probably one of the most abundant waterfowl species in North America, and concentrate in huge flocks during migration. A friend recently told me that our refuges can’t justify planting corn for Snow Geese because their numbers are so high. But, we both agreed, from a refuge visitor standpoint, the Snow Geese offer a spectacle that few other species of wildlife can match.