During the next several weeks, nearly a million snow geese will migrate through Pennsylvania in route to their breeding grounds on the arctic tundra of Canada.
This event seems even more remarkable if you realize that around 1900, the entire population of snow geese throughout all of North America was probably less than 3,000. By the turn of the twenty-first century, that number had grown to a staggering 5 to 6 million snow geese.
Snow goose numbers exploded during the last few decades of the twentieth century. Here in the Atlantic Flyway, for example, there were an estimated 50,000 snow geese in the 1960s; in recent years, that number has multiplied to one million or more. Since the late 1990s, tens of thousands of the big, white birds use the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area as a stopover during their northward migration this time of year, making it one of the best places on the east coast 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.
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 week, saw the first major numbers of geese at Middle Creek with a reported 50,000 snows taking refuge there.
The Game Commission provides a wealth of information on their website (pgc.pa.state.us), including regular reports of the numbers of geese and swans present at Middle Creek. On the right side of the homepage, click on "Middle Creek WMA." On the Middle Creek page, click the "Waterfowl Migration Update" link for the latest report.S
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 always 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. And 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.
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 hunting seasons, liberal bag limits and special hunting methods to increase the annual harvest of snow geese. In Pennsylvania, the snow goose conservation season runs until April 26 and shooting hours are extended until a half hour after sunset. The daily limit is 25 geese, and electronic calls and decoys are permitted.
In addition to a general hunting license, 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 mail by calling the Game Commission's Bureau of Wildlife Management at 717-787-4250.