Have you ever seen a flight of snow geese? Probably not here in Western New York, because only a few dozen normally appear each spring mixed in with our thousands of Canada geese.
Some years ago, a group of us saw a line of 20 of these geese flying high overhead. They were beautiful white birds with black primary wing feathers seen against a backdrop of blue sky. It was a thrilling sight, the best of a great day of birding. And I recall thinking: Wouldn't it be great if we could see more of these birds?
In fact, snow geese were so rare everywhere in the 1970s that hunting seasons were closed.
So much for the past. Today the situation is very different. You can travel east to Cayuga and Seneca lakes or to the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge to see tens of thousands of these birds. Resting on the water, they literally fill in extensive sections of those lakes. But the spectacular view is when they rise like a snowstorm to fill the sky.
The migration of snow geese that brings those numbers in spring and fall is only about a hundred miles from us, yet we normally see few of those birds. The flyway that takes them north from Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic shorelines to Labrador and back is usually very narrow and, except for a few individuals, misses us entirely.
But not this year. Reports have been coming in from the fields along Lake Ontario in Orleans and Niagara counties of snow geese in the hundreds of thousands, with one estimate of a million birds. Among them are dozens of blue geese, the dark color morph of the snow goose. And we thought we had too many Canada geese. They are far outnumbered this year by these newcomers.
Birders from all over the region are rushing to those areas to see this spectacular show. Why has this remarkable event happened? As Bob Spahn of Rochester said, "Looking at bird distribution questions is one of the fascinating, open-ended opportunities in bird observation and study. With the snow geese, clearly a major factor in all that we are seeing now is the huge population explosion."
Since we normally see so few of these geese, it may seem strange to hear of their population explosion. But indeed snow geese numbers have been increasing exponentially. Their population has doubled many times since the 1970s.
As a result, those far northern breeding grounds are being devastated. In some areas, more than 8,000 pairs nest in each square mile. Jody Gienow and Louis-Rene Senechal record the result in just one area: "At McConnell River, on the west coast of Hudson Bay, a colony of about 200,000 breeding geese has denuded the original nesting area of edible vegetation so that little more than bare soil remains." This kind of thing is happening across vast areas of the far north all the way to the Pacific Coast.
OK, so one reason for the occurrence of these geese could be their increased numbers. But there are other aspects as well. Although the range of their migration dates is wide, normally these birds appear each spring in mid-April. This year they have showed up at the beginning of February.
Of course, we have a good reason for that: this year's non-winter. We may be seeing the result of a partially curtailed southward migration with birds wandering around our region or we may be seeing the result of the birds thinking that spring is already here.
A suggestion if you go to see the snow geese: They have a black "grin" mark on their bill that makes them very ugly up close. They are far more attractive seen from a distance.