The Blizzard Has Arrived: Snow Geese at Middle Creek

It’s that time of year—Snow Geese on their northbound migration, more than 100,000 of them, have arrived for a stopover at the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster and Lebanon Counties.  Get there now to see scenes like these in person…

Snow Geese at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
Thousands of Snow Geese gather on the main impoundment at Middle Creek.  Presently, over 100,000 are estimated to be visiting the refuge.
Tundra Swans at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
More than two thousand Tundra Swans are visiting Middle Creek right now too.
female American Kestrel
A passing American Kestrel doesn’t seem to ruffle any feathers among the multitudes of Snow Geese on the lake…
Bald Eagles at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
…but when the local pair of Bald Eagles gets close, such as when they’re escorting a third party away from their nesting territory, …
Snow Geese at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
…Snow Geese lift off in a panic.
Snow Geese at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
Snow Geese rise above the shoreline treetops.
Snow Geese at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
Feeding and roosting Snow Geese take flight in the presence of a potential predator to not only make a direct escape, but also to seek a safer position toward the center of the flock, keeping away from the vulnerable areas on the periphery.
Snow Geese and Tundra Swans at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
Thousands of Snow Geese rise behind the placid group of Tundra Swans in the foreground.
Snow Geese at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
Observers along Willow Point Trail with swarming Snow Geese just ahead.
Snow Geese at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
In the midst of the thunderous cackle of thousands of Snow Geese.
Snow Geese at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
Don’t forget your camera…
Snow Geese at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
…for an unforgettable photo op at Willow Point.

Snow Goose Numbers Peaking

It’s that time—Snow Goose numbers are peaking at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster/Lebanon Counties.

Today, migrating Snow Geese arriving from wintering areas on the Atlantic Coastal Plain blanketed the ice-free half of the lake at Middle Creek.  There are probably in excess of 100,000 birds at the refuge right now.
The density on the lake is relieved as geese filter out to a nearby field to graze.
Periodically throughout the day, observers are thrilled by the sight of Snow Geese rising into the air in unison as a thunderously loud cloud of birds.
Open water is at a premium right now, so these Ring-necked Ducks and a Tundra Swan have to squeeze in where they can.
If you’re going to Middle Creek to see the Snow Geese, be certain to bring your camera and viewing optics.  If you want to miss the largest crowds, the Pennsylvania Game Commission recommends visiting during the morning or on a weekday.  For everyone’s safety, please remember to slow down and follow the posted parking directives.  And so that the wildlife isn’t disturbed by your visit, please heed the signs designating the no-entry and propagation zones.

Snow Geese Arriving

With plenty of open water on the main lake and no snow cover on the fields where they graze, Snow Geese have begun arriving at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster/Lebanon Counties.  As long as our mild winter weather continues, more can be expected to begin moving inland from coastal areas to prepare for their spring migration and a return to arctic breeding grounds.

You probably need a break from being indoors all month, so why not get out and have a look?

Hundreds of high-flying Snow Geese descended onto the main lake at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area this afternoon.
Snow Geese and a few Ring-necked Ducks as seen from the Willow Point observation area at Middle Creek this afternoon.
The sound of calling Tundra Swans is music to the ears on an otherwise quiet winter day.
Dozens of Common Mergansers are at Middle Creek W.M.A. right now.
Look carefully and you might see American Black Ducks among the waterfowl in the refuge’s impoundments.
Northern Shovelers have been at Middle Creek since late fall.  If they can continue to access the muddy bottom of the refuge’s lake for food, they’ll stay until the spring migration.
Check those flocks of Canada Geese carefully, sometimes you’ll find something different among them,…
…like this noticeably smaller bird, probably either a Lesser Canada Goose (Branta canadensis parvipes) or a Richardson’s Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii hutchinsii).

Don’t just sit there—don your coat, grab a pair of binoculars, and get out and have a gander!

Snow Goose X 100,000

According to the most recent Pennsylvania Game Commission estimate, there are presently more than 100,000 Snow Geese at the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area (W.M.A.) in Lancaster and Lebanon Counties.  It’s a spectacular sight.

Noisy flights of Snow Geese, which can number from hundreds to thousands of birds, consist of strings of multiple V-shaped flocks.  During late-February and early-March, they are a common sight as they make excursions from the lake at Middle Creek W.M.A. to feeding areas in the farmlands of the lower Susquehanna valley and back again.
During the early 1990s, Snow Geese started moving away from compromised late-winter feeding areas in tidal marshes on the Atlantic Coastal Plain and began taking advantage of grazing and gleaning opportunities among grass crops (wheat, etc,), and more recently cover crops, in the almost predator-free high-intensity farming areas near the Middle Creek refuge.

If you go to see these and other birds at Middle Creek, it’s important to remember that you are visiting them in a “wildlife refuge” set aside for, believe it or not, wildlife.  “Wildlife refuge”, many would be surprised to learn, is short for “terrestrial or aquatic habitat where wildlife can find refuge and protection from all the meddlesome and murderous things people do”.

It’s not necessary to cross the well-marked boundaries of the refuge to get a better look at the geese, swans, and other wildlife at Middle Creek.  Nor is it necessary to blow your motor vehicle’s horn, clap your hands, yell, or make other noises to scare the geese into flying so that you might get a good photograph.  Such disturbances cause the birds to expend the energy they need to continue their journey north.  They also cause the Pennsylvania Game Commission to spend funds on crowd control that might otherwise be spent on improvements to wildlife habitat.
By embracing the virtue of patience, observers can get spectacular views and take great pictures from outside the refuge boundaries.
Photographers who stand quietly and make no sudden movements will find that the foraging Snow Geese will often approach well within the range of most cameras.  All of these pictures were taken with an inexpensive model purchased at a Walmart.
Intermixed within the flocks, there are usually good numbers of gray-mottled hatch-year (juvenile) birds and often a few examples of the dark brown “Blue Goose”, a not-so-rare color morph of the Snow Goose.
Observers viewing tens of thousands of Snow geese from the Willow Point observation area at Middle Creek W.M.A.
There are approximately 1,500 Tundra Swans at Middle Creek W.M.A at the present time.  Compare their pure white plumage and long necks with the black-tipped wings and short stocky necks of the Snow Geese accompanying them in this image.
Clamoring geese let observers know that a massive lift-off may be in the making.  Cameras are made ready.
Away they go with a cackling roar!
Sooner or latter, the geese will engulf the patient observer within one of their swirling swarms.
Marvelous!  Go check it out.

Clean Slate for 2020

Inside the doorway that leads to your editor’s 3,500 square foot garden hangs a small chalkboard upon which he records the common names of the species of birds that are seen there—or from there—during the year.  If he remembers to, he records the date when the species was first seen during that particular year.  On New Year’s Day, the results from the freshly ended year are transcribed onto a sheet of notebook paper.  On the reverse, the names of butterflies, mammals, and other animals that visited the garden are copied from a second chalkboard that hangs nearby.  The piece of paper is then inserted into a folder to join those from previous New Year’s Days.  The folder then gets placed back into the editor’s desk drawer beneath a circular saw blade and an old scratched up set of sunglasses—so that he knows exactly where to find it if he wishes to.

A quick glance at this year’s list calls to mind a few recollections.

The 2019 bird list included 48 species, the 47 on the board plus Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which was logged on a slip of paper found tucked into the edge of the frame.

This Green Frog, photographed on New Year’s Day 2019, was “out and about” along the edge of the editor’s garden pond.  Due to the recent mild weather, Green Frogs were active during the current New Year’s holiday as well.
On a day with strong south winds in late February or during the first two weeks of March, there is often a conspicuous northbound spring flight of migrating waterfowl, gulls, and songbirds that crosses the lower Susquehanna valley as it departs Chesapeake Bay.  These Tundra Swans were among the three thousand seen from the garden patio on March 13, 2019.  A thousand migrating Canada Geese, 500 Red-winged Blackbirds, numerous Ring-billed Gulls, and some Herring Gulls were seen during the same afternoon.
This juvenile Cooper’s Hawk was photographed through the editor’s kitchen window.  From its favorite perch on this arbor it would occasionally find success snagging a House Sparrow from the large local flock.  It first visited the garden in November, the species being absent there since early spring.  Unlike previous years, there was no evidence of a breeding pair in the vicinity during 2019.
Plantings that provide food and cover for wildlife are essential to their survival.  Native flowers including Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans) and Partridge Pea provide nourishment for the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that visit the editor’s garden, but they really love a basket or pot filled with Mexican Cigar (Cuphea ignea) too.  The latter (seen here) can be grown as a houseplant and moved outdoors to a semi-shaded location in summer and early fall.  But remember, it’s tropical, so you’ll need to bring it back inside when frost threatens.
A Swamp Sparrow is an unusual visitor to a small property surrounded by paved parking lots and treeless lawns.  Nevertheless, aquatic gardens and native plants helped to attract this nocturnal migrant, seen here eating seeds from Indiangrass.  It arrived on September 30 and was gone on October 2.

Before putting the folder back into the drawer for another year, the editor decided to count up the species totals on each of the sheets and load them into the chart maker in the computer.

Despite the habitat improvements in the garden, the trend is apparent.  Bird diversity has not cracked the 50 species mark in 6 years.  Despite native host plants and nectar species in abundance, butterfly diversity has not exceeded 10 species in 6 years.

It appears that, at the very least, the garden habitat has been disconnected from the home ranges of many species by fragmentation.  His little oasis is now isolated in a landscape that becomes increasingly hostile to native wildlife with each passing year.  The paving of more parking areas, the elimination of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous growth from the large number of rental properties in the area, the alteration of the biology of the nearby stream by hand-fed domestic ducks, light pollution, and the outdoor use of pesticides have all contributed to the separation of the editor’s tiny sanctuary from the travel lanes and core habitats of many of the species that formerly visited, fed, or bred there.  In 2019, migrants, particularly “fly-overs”, were nearly the only sightings aside from several woodpeckers, invasive House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), and hardy Mourning Doves.  Even rascally European Starlings became sporadic in occurrence—imagine that!   It was the most lackluster year in memory.

The Tufted Titmouse was a daily visitor to the garden through 2018.  This one was photographed investigating holes in an old magnolia there during the spring of that year.  There were no Tufted Titmouse sightings in the garden in 2019.  This and other resident species, especially cavity-nesters, appear to be experiencing at least a temporary decline.
Breeding birds including Northern Cardinals may have had a difficult year.  In the editor’s garden, a pair were still feeding and escorting one of their young in early October.  The infestation of the editor’s town by domestic house and feral cats may have contributed to the failure of earlier broods, but a lack of food is also a likely factor.

If habitat fragmentation were the sole cause for the downward trend in numbers and species, it would be disappointing, but comprehendible.  There would be no cause for greater alarm.  It would be a matter of cause and effect.  But the problem is more widespread.

Although the editor spent a great deal of time in the garden this year, he was also out and about, traveling hundreds of miles per week through lands on both the east and the west shores of the lower Susquehanna.  And on each journey, the number of birds seen could be counted on fingers and toes.  A decade earlier, there were thousands of birds in these same locations, particularly during the late summer.

At about the time of summer solstice in June each year, Common Grackles begin congregating into roving summer flocks that will grow in size to assure their survival during the autumn migration, winter season, and return north in the spring.  From his garden, the editor saw just one flock of less than a dozen birds during the summer of 2019.  He saw none during his journeys through other areas of the Susquehanna valley.  Flocks of one hundred birds or more did not materialize until the southbound movements of grackles passed through the region in October and November.

In the lower Susquehanna valley, something has drastically reduced the population of birds during breeding season, post-breeding dispersal, and the staging period preceding autumn migration.  In much of the region, their late-spring through summer absence was, in 2019, conspicuous.  What happened to the tens of thousands of swallows that used to gather on wires along rural roads in August and September before moving south?  The groups of dozens of Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) that did their fly-catching from perches in willows alongside meadows and shorelines—where are they?

Several studies published during the autumn of 2019 have documented and/or predicted losses in bird populations in the eastern half of the United States and elsewhere.  These studies looked at data samples collected during recent decades to either arrive at conclusions or project future trends.  They cite climate change, the feline infestation, and habitat loss/degradation among the factors contributing to alterations in range, migration, and overall numbers.

There’s not much need for analysis to determine if bird numbers have plummeted in certain Lower Susquehanna Watershed habitats during the aforementioned seasons—the birds are gone.  None of these studies documented or forecast such an abrupt decline.  Is there a mysterious cause for the loss of the valley’s birds?  Did they die off?  Is there a disease or chemical killing them or inhibiting their reproduction?  Is it global warming?  Is it Three Mile Island?  Is it plastic straws, wind turbines, or vehicle traffic?

The answer might not be so cryptic.  It might be right before our eyes.  And we’ll explore it during 2020.

A clean slate for 2020.

In the meantime, Uncle Ty and I going to the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg.  You should go too.  They have lots of food there.

Tundra Swan Migration

There was a hint of what was to come.  If you were out and about before dawn this morning, you may have been lucky enough to hear them passing by high overhead.  It was 5:30 A.M. when I opened the door and was greeted by that distinctive nasal whistle.  Stepping through the threshold and into the cold, I peered into the starry sky and saw them, their feathers glowing orange in the diffused light from the streets and parking lots below.  Their size and snow-white plumage make Tundra Swans one of the few species of migrating birds you’ll ever get to visibly discern in a dark moonless nighttime sky.

The calm air at daybreak and through the morning transitioned to a steady breeze from the south in the afternoon.  Could this be it?  Would this be that one day in late February or the first half of March each year when waterfowl (and other birds too) seem to take advantage of the favorable wind to initiate an “exodus” and move in conspicuous numbers up the lower Susquehanna valley on their way to breeding grounds in the north?  Well, indeed it would be.  And with the wind speeding up the parade, an observer at a fixed point on the ground gets to see more birds fly by.

In the late afternoon, an observation location in the Gettysburg Basin about five miles east of Conewago Falls in Lancaster County seemed to be well-aligned with a northwesterly flight path for migrating Tundra Swans.  At about 5:30 P.M., the clear sky began clouding over, possibly pushing high-flying birds more readily into view.  During the next several hours, over three thousand Tundra Swans passed overhead, flocks continuing to pass for a short time after nightfall.  There were more than one thousand Canada Geese, the most numerous species on similar days in previous years.  Sometimes on such a day there are numerous ducks.  Not today.  The timing, location, and conditions put Tundra Swans in the spotlight for this year’s show.

Tundra Swans flying northwest, paralleling the Susquehanna five miles distant.
Tundra Swans winter on the Atlantic Coastal Plain and often stage their northbound movements on the Piedmont along the lower Susquehanna River and at the nearby Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.  The birds seen this evening are possibly coming directly from the coast or Chesapeake Bay.  With five hours of favorable wind helping them along, covering one hundred miles or more in an afternoon would be no problem.
High-flying Tundra Swans on their way to breeding grounds on, you guessed it, the arctic tundra in Alaska and northwestern Canada.
Tundra Swans in the largest flocks, sometimes comprised of more than 200 birds, were often detected by their vocalizations as they approached.
Tundra Swan flights continued after sunset and nightfall.
All of the high-flying migratory Canada Geese seen this evening were on a more northerly course than the northwest-bound swans.  These geese probably spent the winter on the Atlantic Coastal Plain near Chesapeake Bay and are now en route to breeding grounds in, you guessed it again, Canada.  They are not part of the resident Canada Goose population we see nesting throughout the lower Susquehanna valley.

Other migrants moving concurrently with the waterfowl included Ring-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls (6+), American Robins (50+), Red-winged Blackbirds (500+), and Common Grackles (100+).

Though I’ve only seen such a spectacle only once during a season in recent years, there certainly could be another large flight of ducks, geese, or swans yet to come. The breeze is forecast to continue from southerly directions for at least another day.  Keep you eyes skyward, no matter where you might happen to be in the lower Susquehanna valley.  These or other migratory species may put on another show, a “big day”, just for you.

 

It is the First Full Day of Spring…Isn’t It?

You remember the signs of an early spring, don’t you?  It was a mild, almost balmy, February.  The earliest of the spring migrants such as robins and blackbirds were moving north through the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.  The snow had melted and ice on the river had passed.  Everyone was outdoors once again.  At last, winter was over and only the warmer months lie ahead…beginning with March.

Common Grackles are often the first perching birds to begin moving north through the lower Susquehanna valley in spring.  They often winter in large roving flocks of mixed blackbird species on the nearby Atlantic Coastal Plain Province.  These flocks sometimes wander the farmlands of the lower Piedmont Province near the river, but rarely stray north of the 40th parallel before February.

Ah yes, March, the cold windy month of March.  We remember February fondly, but this March has startled us out of our vernal daydreams to wrestle with the reality of the season.  And if you’re anywhere near the Mid-Atlantic states on this first full day of spring, you know that a long winter’s nap and visions of sugar peas would be time better spent than a stroll outdoors.  Presently it’s dusk, and the snow from the 4th “Nor’easter” in a month is a foot deep and still falling.

In honor of “The Spring That Was”, here then is a sampling of some of the migratory waterfowl that have found their way to the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed during March.  Some are probably lingering and feeding for a while.  All will move along to their breeding grounds within a couple of weeks, regardless of the weather.

Tundra Swans will migrate in a northwest direction to reach breeding grounds west and north of Hudson Bay.
Migratory Canada Geese departing the Chesapeake Bay area typically pass over the lower Susquehanna valley at high altitudes.  A south wind can bring a sustained day-long flight of migrating geese and ducks over the region on a given day in late-February or March.
Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) historically wintered in the marshes of the Atlantic seaboard where the tide cycle kept vegetation primarily snow-free for feeding.  Removal of hedgerows and intensive farming since the 1980s has attracted these birds to inland agricultural lands during their preparation for the move north.  For nearly three decades, tens of thousands have annually begun their spring journey with a stopover at the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.  Flocks range widely from Middle Creek to feed, commonly as far west as the fields of the Conewago Creek valley in the Gettysburg Basin to the east of Conewago Falls.  
American Black Ducks
A pair of Northern Shovelers (Anas clypeata).
Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) are “diving ducks”.
A male Lesser Scaup, Aythya affinis, (front center) and Ring-necked Ducks (rear and left) seen between feeding dives.
A male Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola).  These miniature diving ducks will sometimes winter on the Susquehanna in “rafts” of dozens of birds.
Tundra Swans journey toward the “Land of the Mid-Night Sun”.

 

A Flock of Seagulls?

At the moment there is a heavy snow falling, not an unusual occurrence for mid-February, nevertheless, it is a change in weather.  Forty-eight hours ago we were in the midst of a steady rain and temperatures were in the sixties.  The snow and ice had melted away and a touch of spring was in the air.

Big Bluestem in the Riverine Grasslands is inundated by the rising waters of the Susquehanna at Conewago Falls.   The river ice has been dispersed by the recent mild temperatures and rains.

Anyone casually looking about while outdoors during these last several days may have noticed that birds are indeed beginning to migrate north in the lower Susquehanna valley.  Killdeer, American Robins, Eastern Bluebirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Common Grackles are easily seen or heard in most of the area now.

Just hours ago, between nine o’clock this morning and one o’clock this afternoon, there was a spectacular flight of birds following the river north, their spring migration well underway.  In the blue skies above Conewago Falls, a steady parade of Ring-billed Gulls was utilizing thermals and riding a tailwind from the south-southeast to cruise high overhead on a course toward their breeding range.

Ring-billed Gulls swarm in a thermal updraft above Conewago Falls to gain altitude prior to streaming off to the north and continuing their journey.
Ring-billed Gulls climbing to heights sometimes exceeding 1,000 feet before breaking off and gliding away to the north.

The swirling hoards of Ring-billed Gulls attracted other migrants to take advantage of the thermals and glide paths on the breeze.  Right among them were 44 Herring Gulls, 3 Great Black-backed Gulls, 12 Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus), 10 Canada Geese, 3 Northern Pintails (Anas acuta), 6 Common Mergansers, 3 Red-tailed Hawks, a Red-shouldered Hawk, 6 Bald Eagles (non-adults), 8 Black Vultures, and 5 Turkey Vultures.

A first-year Herring Gull (top center) is a standout in a “kettle” of Ring-billed Gulls.
How many Ring-billed Gulls passed by today?  More than 18,000…with emphasis on MORE THAN.  You see, early this afternoon, the handy-dandy clicker-counter used to tick off and tally the big flights of birds as they pass by quit clicking and counting.  Therefore, 18,000 is the absolute minimum number of Ring-billed Gulls seen migrating north today.  Hopefully the trusty old oil can will get the clicker working again soon.

In the afternoon, the clouds closed in quickly, the flight ended, and by dusk more than an inch of snow was on the ground.  Looks like spring to me.