Migration time for snow geese


Winter snows are descending on Pennsylvania No, I am not talking about the cold, wet white stuff that blanketed most of the state last week, but rather hundreds of thousands of snow geese on their annual spring migration to breeding grounds on the arctic tundra of Canada. This invasion seems all the more remarkable with the realization that around 1900, the entire population of snow geese throughout all of North America was probably less than 3,000 birds.

By the late 1960s, there were an estimated 50,000 snow geese here in the Atlantic Flyway, but during the last decades of the twentieth century, their numbers multiplied to one million or more, with a staggering total population of 5 to 6 million snow geese throughout their range. Since the late 1990s, hundreds of thousands of the big, white birds have used the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area as a stopover on their northward migration during late winter, making it one of the best places in the eastern U.S. to see incredible numbers of snow geese.

Located on the Lebanon/Lancaster county line, the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area is a 6,254-acre project created by the Pennsylvania Game Commission in 1973 as a management area for waterfowl.

The centerpiece of the Middle Creek project is a 756-acre propagation area that surrounds a 400-acre manmade lake. In recent years, as many as 100,000 to 150,000 of these birds descend on the project during their spring migration. Thousands of tundra swans have also made Middle Creek a part of their migration route along with many species of ducks.

First-time visitors to Middle Creek should plan to stop at is modern visitor center, which is an attraction in itself. Hundreds of mounted specimens of waterfowl, other birds and mammals, along with numerous museum-like displays throughout the building, are well worth seeing. The information desk at the center is staffed with folks who can answer questions and provide information on current wildlife viewing opportunities.

Maps and other free literature are also available to help you get the most from your time at the management area. The visitor center is open Tuesday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday, from noon to 5 p.m. It is closed Mondays. A good pair of binoculars is a must, as well as a bird field guide if you are not familiar with most species of ducks and waterfowl.

The snow geese invasion at Middle Creek is somewhat weather dependent, but most years, late February through early March offers the peak of the activity. Last year, peak numbers of birds were observed on Feb. 29 when more than 65,000 snow geese and 3,500 tundra swans occupied Middle Creek. Indications are the peak migration might be somewhat earlier this year, as about 40,000 snow geese and 4,500 tundra swans spotted there early last week. For those interested in seeing the wonders of Middle Creek firsthand, the Game Commission provides a wealth of information on its website, pgc.pa.gov, including regular reports of the numbers of geese and swans present at the project.

While the tremendous flocks of migrating snow geese produce a thrilling natural spectacle for anyone who enjoys watching wildlife, there is also a downside to those huge numbers. Excessive concentrations of snow geese cause extensive damage to the natural vegetation of the coastal marshes where they spend the winter and agricultural crops along their migration routes. The overcrowding of their breeding grounds causes even more severe damage that affects not only the geese but also many other species of birds that nest on the fragile tundra habitat as well.

Biologists believe reducing the population of snow geese in the Atlantic Flyway to about 500,000 birds will be more sustainable in the long term. To accomplish this objective, wildlife managers at the state and federal level have collaborated to allow extended conservation hunting seasons, liberal bag limits and special hunting methods to increase the annual harvest of snow geese.

In Pennsylvania, the snow goose conservation season began on January 21 in the Southern James Bay Population Zone, on Feb. 1 in the Atlantic Population Zone, and will begin on March 1 in the Resident Population Zone; the season runs until April 21 in all three zones. During the conservation season, the daily limit is 25 snow geese, electronic calls and decoys are permitted, and shooting hours are extended until a half hour after sunset.

In addition to a general hunting license, a Federal Duck Stamp (for hunters over 16 years of age) and a Pennsylvania Migratory Bird License, hunters will need a free Pennsylvania snow goose conservation permit to participate in the snow goose conservation season. Hunters will also be required to file a harvest report card at the end of the season.

Permits and report cards can be downloaded from the Game Commission website or obtained by calling the Game Commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Management at 717-787-4250. Complete information on snow goose hunting and the special conservation season, along with updates and information about the wildlife viewing opportunities at the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area can be found on the Pennsylvania Game Commission website.