Middle Creek Midwinter

Two miles from Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, the sky suddenly filled up with skeins of greater snow geese. It was mid-February, just after a rainstorm, and my husband Bruce, my father and I had come to see the amazing spectacle of greater snow geese (Anser caerulescens atlantica) on State Game Lands 46 in Lancaster and Lebanon counties.

This was my fifth visit to Middle Creek over the last decade and a half. Each one has been special; each time I have seen abundant and varied species of waterfowl. But never before had I seen thousands of birds at a time sweep across the skies or congregate on open fields, turning the brown soil white with their bodies.

Over the last few years I had been reading about the upsurge of greater snow geese numbers and their adoption of Middle Creek as a staging area along the Atlantic flyway in mid winter. A rare sighting at the beginning of the nineties, their population began increasing in 1992. In 1997 an unprecedented 150,000 arrived. Since then, the greater snow geese at Middle Creek have hovered around 60,000, but thousands more are scattered throughout the farm fields of Berks, Chester and Lancaster counties.

Back in the 1970s, shortly after the damming of Middle Creek, visitors came to see resident Canada geese, which increased rapidly after 30 mated pairs were transplanted from the Pymatuning Waterfowl Area in 1967. Today, according to John Dunn, Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist and our host for the morning, Middle Creek now has 3,000 resident Canada geese and five to six thousand migrants.

Then, twenty years ago, tundra swans started appearing at the facility. Today visitors can expect to see 4,000 of them in mid-to-late February, although in that stupendous year 1997, the number of swans doubled.

All of these species have benefited from the leftover grain in farmers’ fields, which helps to sustain them during the winter months. But while the eastern North America wintering population of tundra swans remains sustainable at about 90,000, the greater snow geese population is growing at nine percent a year. Already they are degrading portions of their wintering habitat in salt marshes from New Jersey to North Carolina, and biologists fear that soon they will overwhelm their Arctic summering habitat too.

This is not a guess on the biologists’ part. They have already seen this happen to the Arctic habitat of the mid-continent population of lesser snow geese (Anser caerulescens) and Ross’s geese (Anser rossii). Their numbers have tripled since the 1960s to six million, again, in part, because of ample fields of grain on their wintering grounds. Thirty-five percent of their Arctic nesting habitat along west Hudson Bay and James Bay has been destroyed, another thirty percent has been badly damaged, and the rest is overgrazed.

This same habitat is also home to more than thirty other migratory bird species such as semi-palmated sandpipers, red-necked phalaropes, dowitchers, Hudsonian godwits, whimbrels, stilt sandpipers, yellow rails, American wigeons, northern shovelers, oldsquaws, red-breasted mergansers, parasitic jaegers, Lapland longspurs, and the southern James Bay population of Canada geese. All of their populations are declining because of habitat destruction by these so-called “light geese.”

Unlike Canada geese, which feed by eating the tops of plants, light geese (Ross’ goose, greater and lesser snow geese) pull up and eat the roots of plants, a process known as “grubbing” in scientific circles. At normal population levels, this helps stimulate the growth of salt marsh plants, but, as Scott Weidensaul writes in his excellent book Living on the Wind, “The snows are literally eating the heart out of the salt marsh.” Biologists call these decimated areas “eatouts,” in which smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), the favorite food of greater snow geese, is replaced by empty mudflats.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as the greater snow goose population expanded, hundreds of acres of salt marshes at such places as Prime Hook and Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuges in Delaware and Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey were turned into mudflats. But on freshwater impoundments at Prime Hook, for instance, grubbing by the geese helped to open up areas of thick cordgrass vegetation to a greater diversity of annual plants preferred by other waterfowl. Then, too, in salt marshes close to agricultural areas, the geese shifted their daytime feeding activity to green grain fields of winter wheat, barley and rye and harvested corn and soybean stubble fields. This has led to the stabilization and even repair of previously degraded areas. On the other hand, the damage is increasing at Forsythe NWR because there are no agricultural lands close to it.

Agricultural fields also sustain the greater snow geese at Middle Creek and its environs, but wildlife managers want to keep their population low enough so that they will not ruin their nesting grounds as the overpopulation of lesser snow geese and Ross’s geese has done.

Greater snow geese nest in the high eastern Arctic, including the coast of Greenland, Ellesmere, Bylot and northern Baffin islands, and approximately 800,000 greater snow geese are now descending on fall staging areas: first at Ungava Bay, directly south of Baffin Island, and then in Quebec along the St. Lawrence River. In Quebec they have switched their primary feeding grounds from bullrush marshes to corn and winter wheat fields causing so much damage that the Canadian government has been paying farmers for crop damage, according to Dunn.

Dunn thinks that the habitat can support about one million greater snow geese at most, a number he estimates they will reach by 2002.

“Maybe,” he said, “we still have a chance to control them if we do something now.”

That is why he organized an all-day workshop on snow geese last January at Middle Creek where he encouraged increased hunting of them. He admitted that hunting snow geese is not easy because they are wary birds that stay in huge flocks for protection, a fact we discovered when Dunn drove us out to the Middle Creek farm fields which, near midday, were jam-packed with snow geese. As soon as we stopped and got out for a closer look, the geese moved away from us and some took off, wheeling in huge flocks over the fields. Luckily, our binoculars allowed us closeup views of the six-to-seven pound, white birds with black wingtips. Here and there among the predominant greater snow geese, we picked out an occasional blue goose color phase of the lesser snow goose. There are now so many of the latter, they are spilling over into the Atlantic flyway, Dunn told us. He also sees Ross’ geese sometimes at Middle Creek.

To people used to the songbird-filled mountains of central Pennsylvania, the sheer numbers of snow geese were overwhelming, and we stood watching and listening to the spectacle of thousands of them taking off, landing, foraging, and calling, their loud whock, whocks resonating over the landscape. Shivering in the cold wind, I could almost imagine I was in the high Arctic in summer instead of a Pennsylvania farm field in midwinter.

Once we had our fill of snow geese in the fields, we visited other areas of Middle Creek, most notably Willow Point Trail. This easy, almost flat, half-mile trail leads to an observation point that overlooks much of the 400-acre, shallow water lake, interspersed with nesting islands, created to provide resting, loafing, nesting and feeding areas for resident and migratory waterfowl. Even there the sky and a portion of the lake was white with snow geese, and our ears rang from the combined honks and calls of Canada geese, snow geese and tundra swans.

With the help of visitors Bill and Amy Francisco and their powerful scope, we had excellent views of a pair of ruddy ducks, common mergansers, and ring-necked ducks. Dad who, at the age of 85, was getting his first real taste of waterfowl watching in Pennsylvania through a scope, was even more excited when we spotted a pair of mature bald eagles in dead snags on the other side of the lake near the White Oak Picnic Area. Dunn had told us earlier that they had built a nest at Middle Creek but hadn’t yet used it in the two years they had been there. Recently, though, he had watched them mating and so hopes were high that they might finally raise a family at Middle Creek.

Probably the easiest way to watch waterfowl at Middle Creek is from the berm of the road below the Visitor Center. As the day gradually brightened, more and more visitors drove in for a look. No one was disappointed as we watched an endless parade of swimming Canada geese, tundra swans, northern shovelers, and black ducks close to the shore. On a small pond across the road from the lake we spotted ruddy ducks and a pair of buffleheads. All of these birds were easily identified through our binoculars.

We never seem to have enough time to do all we would like to at Middle Creek and, as the short winter day waned, we reluctantly took a final drive to the White Oak Picnic Area, directly across the lake from Willow Point Trail. To our chagrin, we again spotted a bald eagle. This time it was perched on a dead snag in the water near Willow Point. We studied it through our binoculars for a long time, willing it to come closer. Finally, we climbed back into our car for the long trip home.

Then, suddenly, as if in answer to our wishes, it flew across the lake toward us. Swooping low over our car, it made two passes at a pigeon, which it missed. We were openmouthed with surprise. In that instant, the spectacle of thousands of snow geese was permanently upstaged in our memories of Middle Creek by the hunting bald eagle. Later, when we told others of our fabulous midwinter visit to Middle Creek, we raved about the huge flocks of geese and swans, mentioned the surprising diversity of ducks in midwinter, but ended with our tale of the bald eagle’s near miss. As usual, where nature is concerned, it was the unexpected that capped a perfect day.