Monday, March 11, 2013

S'no Goose

Last year around this time I went to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Pennsylvania, to see the snowgeese that usually stop there in early spring on their northward migration (that post is here).  I didn't realize how lucky I was to see a flock numbering in the tens of thousands, until I returned this year.  Even though we waited until dusk, when they are expected to return to spend the night safely floating on the water, only these few were to be seen.  The dark specks on the sky, and the light specks settling in on the reservoir, is all that appeared.  At the very end of this post is last year's video - the contrast couldn't be more astounding.
There were lots of fake plastic decoys though, fluttering in fields with hunters waiting, concealed in white suits, for some real birds to appear.
In all fairness, it's often been hunters who have been the most dedicated conservationists, even though their idea was to preserve habitat for animals so they can kill them.  In fact, the early enforcers of rules and regulations from the Fish and Wildlife Service, established by game hunters, were shot at - and some of them killed - by people who resented being told there were limits.  Still, perusing some of the promotional material for hunting services is disheartening.  One site sells a dvd with advice on how to shoot more snow geese, with the following disturbing language:
Are you missing out on the greatest waterfowl hunting opportunity today?
While many types of ducks and geese have population numbers that are falling, the snow goose population is rising. And this means more opportunity for the savvy snow goose hunter like you. Yes you!
And it gets better. Depending on when and where you hunt, there is NO LIMIT on how many snow geese you can shoot or how many shells you can have in your gun. How exciting is that? exciting??  Here is their advertisement:

Another site (and there are so many, all across the US, it's amazing) offers guided hunting trips to fields leased from farmers in Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York.  It is illustrated with these hapless victims:

I've copied some of their description of their services, because the numbers are staggering.  Notice although they claim that numbers of snow geese have increased, they also write:  200 decoys was deadly ten years ago but today 600-1500 decoys are needed for those same results.  Is that because the birds got smarter?
We currently lease over 30 farms in Kent and Sussex county. We have farms covering a large area both close to and farther inland from the refuges. Since we have hunted these areas for over twenty years, we have leased only the best farms used by wintering snow geese.
Maryland Snow Goose Hunting
With over 2,200 square miles of grain farms and numerous bays and roost ponds, Maryland's Eastern shore now winters over 200,000 snow geese. With all this seemingly endless waterfowl habitat, the snow goose population has exploded here in the last ten years.  In  addition, being only 12 miles away from the Delaware bay and Bombay Hook refuge, Maryland is also a huge feeding destination for birds from Delaware.
We currently lease 26 farms in four counties along the shore. Being spread over a large area allows us to hunt different bunches of birds so nothing is overhunted. This also keeps us on the birds throughout a 6 month season.
New Jersey Snow Goose Hunting
Southern New Jersey holds upwards of 150,000 snow geese during the fall and spring. Most of these birds are in Salem and Cumberland county.  Generally the birds show up in late October and leave in mid-March.  New Jersey snow goose hunting presents two unique challenges.  First, these birds sometimes will fly over to Delaware to feed for the day. Another second factor to contend with here in New Jersey are the huge tidal marshes where the birds roost. Generally the birds will not leave the marsh preferring to stay and feed on  the salt hay fields that are so numerous in New Jersey tidal marshes. But once the weather turns cold that is when the birds head inland from 2- 20 miles to find higher protein food like corn, soybean or wheat.
New Jersey Farms
We have farms in both Salem and Cumberland county. All or our farms are inland anywhere from 2 -12 miles from the roost areas for these birds. As mentioned above, our best hunting is the first cold snap when the birds head inland for high protein food. Snow geese prefer large farms and our farms vary in size from 60-415 acres. We have leased these farms for over ten years so we have a good idea of when they will use them. And of course we scout daily and have area farmers looking for us also.
Our Decoys
Snow goose hunting requires a huge amount of decoys. We use mostly silosocks and some full bodies. More so than any other waterfowl, huge spreads of decoys are an important part to harvest snow geese.  Being on the 'X" is most important but we have had a lot of good hunts (25-50 birds) just getting under the birds and hunting traffic. 200 decoys was deadly ten years ago but today 600-1500 decoys are needed for those same results.
Del Bay runs four rigs of decoys. Two of our rigs are mobile. Mobile rigs are the one we use when following the birds day to day and setting up on the "X". These two rigs consist of 1,000 GHG shells and 1500 silosocks.
Our other two rigs are more permanent big rigs - 5,000 decoys each. (see below)    Have the big rig paragraph under this.
Big Rigs
We now run two big rigs in both Delaware and Maryland.  These consist of over 5,000 decoys in each rig. Our rigs consists of shells, silhouettes, tire decoys and silosocks. These rigs are set in high traffic areas and along fall-spring migration routes. We do well on breezy-windy days or when lots of birds are in the area.
Is the reduction in numbers at Middle Creek illusory - just a random fluxation, or displacement to other sanctuaries?  If their numbers are really dwindling, is it because they are being hunted?  Or is it because the entire ecosystem is collapsing with trees like the one above, and other vegetation dying off?  Following are excerpts of the sightings which are posted at the Middle Creek website, including the most recent one, from this morning.  To me, the notes reflect an uneasy confusion about the missing waterfowl, as though the ranger is perplexed but doesn't want to sound like the dreaded "alarmist".  Even worse, the last section, Migration Background, says 100,000 is normal - but I was told last year by a man who lives nearby and has been watching the annual cacophony for many years, that 200,000 was typical not so long ago.

03/11/13It looks like things are winding down.
Snow geese:   5,000
Tundra swans:   less than 100
03/07/13Snow geese:      less than 5,000
It was pretty quiet here this morning, it seems that some birds bailed out ahead of the recent storm system.  Like last year, it may be an early exodus.
Tundra swans:     1,100
While we over-wintered more swans than we ever have before, I’m surprised that our numbers didn’t get much past 3,000 for the year.  This may still be subject to change.
03/04/13Snow geese:      no more than 30,000
We were seeing quite a few snow geese here over the weekend, I was surprised to find only this many on the lake this morning.  There are reports of birds to our north, and the Lehigh Valley still has lots of them.  I don’t know if some geese that were here have moved on or if they are spending time elsewhere at this same latitude.  I would not have thought that weather patterns were conducive to a northward push recently.  Checking our records from last year though indicates that birds began leaving here on March 7th.  That seemed early then but it was a very mild winter, as is this one. 
I’ve been in contact with a fellow in Quebec who is working on snow geese along the St. Lawrence River, we’ve been comparing numbers.  The St. Lawrence is the first major migratory stopover and staging area for snow geese once they leave here.  So, when birds are arriving there we know they are leaving here.  You may view his website at, there he has posted the latest snow goose migration map from the website, a site where people report their bird sightings.
Tundra swans:     1,100
Same thing here, I don’t know if birds have left or are just spending time elsewhere. 
02/28/2013Snow geese:      55,000+
It was apparent that numbers were going up through the day yesterday.
Tundra swans:     3,000 +/-
Holding steady, more or less.
02/26/2013Considering the numbers of birds we were seeing through the day yesterday, today's numbers seem low.  All I can do is report the numbers I see in the morning of a given day.  Early morning (daybreak) is usually the best time to get estimates, as any birds in the area should spend the night on the lake.  However, with a bright full moon last night some birds may have stayed out overnight.
Snow geese:      25,000
Tundra swans:     2,700 
02/21/2013No significant changes 
02/19/2013Snow geese:   40,000
At first light this morning my estimate was 35,000.  Then the "missing" 5,000 birds came flying in from the northwest.  Whether these birds spent the night on an alternate roost or out in fields is unknown.  It seems that the numbers of snow geese roosting on the lake has been holding pretty steady lately.  Numbers can, and sometimes do, fluctuate greatly day to day and hour to hour.
Tundra swans:   3,000+
Canada geese:   Several thousand.  I haven't been estimating Canada goose numbers because people don't inquire about them.  People are now so familiar with Canada geese that they pay them no attention.  That's unfortunate because these migrant Canada geese make a migration of a couple thousand miles.  We've had as many as 10,000 migrant birds here in the past.  If I see a dramatic increase in their numbers I'll try to get an estimate. 
02/15/2013Snow geese:  40,000
Down from 50,000 yesterday, it's not unusual to see fluctuations like this.
Tundra swans:  3,000+
It's hard to get a good estimate on swan numbers with that many snow geese on the lake with them.
Canada geese:  several thousand
Ducks:   Several more species have shown up lately.  Seen this morning were mallard, black duck, pintail, widgeon, ring-necked duck, common merganser, and hooded merganser.

02/14/2013Snow geese:  50,000 +/-

02/13/2013Snow geese:  20,000 +/-

02/12/2013Snow geese:      5,000 +/-
Tundra swans:   3,300 +
Canada geese:  3,100 +
Things are starting to pick up a little.  The lake is still pretty much ice covered though and developments will be weather dependant. 
02/05/2013Canada geese:    2,200
Tundra swans:    1,900
Snow geese:       none
Ducks:                no change
Numbers of Canada geese and tundra swans are up since the last estimates.  This could be due to birds using alternate roost sites in the area from day to day, or birds staying out in feeding fields overnight.  I don't think we've seen any big northward movement of waterfowl yet, some ducks perhaps.  The lake is still mostly ice-covered. 
I did not see any snow geese here this morning, but there were a couple of thousand milling around here last Saturday.  Last Friday I was visiting the Lehigh Valley area and saw many tens of thousands of snow geese there.  It seems that over the past few years more snow geese are spending time east of here in the Lehigh Valley, and less time here.  These birds historically wintered along the Atlantic Coast so it makes sense that they would eventually discover the Lehigh Valley.  That area has many limestone quarries, the water in them comes from underground springs so it is slow to freeze.  There is also lots of agricultural land in the area, the other requisite for wintering snow geese. 
1/31/2013The numbers of waterfowl have fluctuated along with the amount of ice on the lake.  The recent cold snap left the lake almost completely ice-covered, only small pockets of open water remain.  Surprisingly, a lot of birds have stuck it out.
Snow geese:  very few here this morning, less than two hundred.  There have been some snow geese in and out, but not many and they haven't been staying.  We've not had more than a few thousand of these birds here at a given time this season, and their presence has not been consistent.  Meanwhile, the Lehigh Valley has had tens of thousands of snow geese all winter.
Canada geese:  1,500.  Earlier in January we had over 4,000 Canada geese wintering here.
Tundra swans:  1,400.  These birds have been the surprise this winter.  In the past we have over-wintered several hundred (perhaps 600) of these birds some years, we are at the northernmost portion of their wintering range.  This year we have more than twice the usual number spending the winter here.  While we may have thousands of these birds stop on migration, this is the largest number of wintering tundra swans we've ever had.
Ducks:  a surprising number of ducks, quite a few, mostly mallards and black ducks.
Remember, ice and snow is what drives the numbers of waterfowl present here.  Less ice and snow means more birds, more ice and snow means less birds.  Given the amount of ice cover it's surprising that we have this many birds here now.  However, the fields in which they feed are snow free which might be why they're hanging on. 
MIGRATION BACKGROUND: The period that annually attracts the most birds, and visitors, remains late winter. During this timeframe, large numbers of migrating waterfowl normally appear. In recent years, more than 100,000 snow geese, 10,00 [sic...10,000?] tundra swans, 10,000 Canada geese, and a wide variety of ducks have stopped at Middle Creek while pushing north to their breeding grounds. It's also a great place to see northern harriers, or "marsh hawks," nesting and immature bald eagles, and more common creatures such as white-tailed deer and red-tailed hawks. 

Following is the video from last year, when the number of snow geese was estimated by a local observer to be about a quarter of what would be expected, based on past populations.  The song is from Nine Inch Nails - lyrics below.


I still recall the taste of your tears 
Echoing your voice just like the ringing in my ears 
My favorite dreams of you still wash ashore 
Scraping through my head 'till I don't want to sleep 

You make this all go away 
You make this all go away 
I'm down to just one thing 
And I'm starting to scare myself 
You make this all go away 
You make this all go way 
I just want something 
I just want something I can never have 

You always were the one to show me how 
Back then I couldn't do the things that I can do now 
This thing is slowly taking me apart 
Gray would be the colour if I had a heart 
Come on, tell me 
You make this all go away 
You make this all go away 
I'm down to just one thing 
And I'm starting to scare myself 
You make this all go away 
You make this all go away 
I just want something 
I just want something I can never have 

In this place it seems like such a shame 
Though it all looks different now 
I know it's still the same 
Everywhere I look you're all I see 
Just a fading fucking reminder of who I used to be 
Come on, tell me! 

You make this all go away 
You make this all go away 
I'm down to just one thing 
And i'm starting to scare myself 
You make this all go away 
You make it all go way 
I just want something 
I just want something I can never have 
I just want something I can never have


  1. Great job Gail!

    i never understood the "thrill" of killing some animal for "fun" or "sport" (it would be sporting if they shot back). i see enough dead critters and deer on the sides of the roads on the way to or from work. It's horrible - i gave up counting them, there are just so many! Squirrels, raccoons, cats, deer, birds, it's just sickening. And this is on top of the mammals and fish beaching themselves by the thousands in some cases, and birds falling out of the sky. We humans really screwed up bigtime and now i'm afraid it's time to pay. Mother Nature is about to make roadkill out of us - open season on humans! Here come the viruses and disease, the locusts and rats, the killer bees and venomous snakes, the heat and flooding, the unimaginable snow, hurricanes and tornados. Then she'll throw in volcanic action, sinkholes, mudslides, earthquakes and pandemics - sounds like it'll be a blast!


  2. I drove over to Belcarra Regional park here in the Vancouver area today. I was pretty surprised to see that along the road leading in was a virtual hedge of young cedars so thick that you couldn't walk through it for many hundreds of meters. They ranged in age anywhere from saplings to probably 15 years old I would guess.

    As an avid follower of your blog for years and from my own personal observations even before that, I consider myself very good at spotting sick trees by now. I couldn't really find anything wrong with the overwhelming majority of these though. Green and thick with branches full of needles all the way down to nearly ground level. They were literally so think and bunched together its hard to imagine how they can compete with eachother when they got older with that little spacing.

    The older trees of course, mainly cedars and large hemlocks which are probably as much as 150 years old, were dying.

    I couldn't find single maple that wasn't in dire straights. In fact I can't find any around the Vancouver area anymore than aren't in a terrible state.

    I'm not sure what allowed all those little hemlocks to survive that well so far. Back in my college biology class I seem to remember hearing during a field trip that hemlocks were the apex forests around this area. Once soil conditions became more and more acidic from the prior douglas firs and other coniferious trees dropping acidic needles over time, then the hemlocks would begin to dominate.

    Well the soil must be pretty acidic I suppose and maybe this is giving them the advantage at the moment as I could find almost no other seedlings other than the odd cedar which was usually not in nearly as robust condition.

    I suppose its only a matter of time before those hemlocks go too though.

    I also saw this video today from Pennsylvania that shows extraction of sap from sugar maples for maple syrup. Those trees look remarkably lichen free compared to our maples, not to mention fairly free of huge cankers or rotten areas. Also there doesn't seem to be a ton of dead wood on the ground, though there is snow that may obscure some.

    It makes me wonder what causes certain areas to fare so much better than others.

  3. Were they cedars or hemlocks? I think you have to remember that pollution isn't the only influence and one of the worst things it does is weaken trees so they can't fight off opportunistic pathogens. So what does or doesn't do well and the timing is a matter of luck - whether there happens to be a fungus or insect ready to move in. Also making some trees more vulnerable would be marginal soil quality or local drought. I suppose the reverse could work as well - some sort of extra healthy minerals In the soil.

    I have yet to see any evidence - personally or in news reports or scientific research - that the trend towards decline and premature mortality is not occurring or being reversed.

    But I'm planning to resurrect my garden this year anyway. I started clearing 2 years' worth of huge weeds from the beds already because...why not?

  4. They were hemlocks, definitely not cedars. I would also doubt the trend towards premature death is being reversed. I was just extremely surprised to find any trees in that kind of condition at this point in time in numbers that large.

    I still find the odd tree around the suburbs here that is full and thick throughout with no outward signs of problems, but they are few and far between.

    I'll be starting my garden up this year again too. I figure since are still somehow trucking in flawless looking produce from California, then I should be able to grow some decent stuff this summer with enough coddling. Honestly I'm not quite sure how they do it though. Massive fertilizer use and extensive pesticides would be my guess.

  5. And fungicide. It is my impression that it is the fungus gone wild that is mainly finishing everything off. Even the much-maligned bark beetles are merely the carriers for a fungus which is what actually does in the trees. Last year when I was on the Cape with my parents, you could watch the impatience shrivel by the day, and it was all over the news that a fungus was killing them and nothing could stop it. The growers were upset. And of course backyards gardeners have been complaining of "late" tomato blight coming two months early.

    I'd surely love to be able to set up a controlled experiement this summer and see the difference! On the other hand, we do have a control group to compare to, and that would be the plants and trees that were growing, oh, twenty years ago.

    But you have to have a memory to make that comparison, and most people seem to have amnesia.

  6. thanks by the way Tom, for your comment - I do appreciate it!

    Yup, we're in for a hell of a ride especially if Australia's summer is a portend.

  7. YouTube has hundreds or maybe thousands of full length movies (free) made from the 50s to the present. Most are B movies you've never heard of, but because they are low budget, they use natural settings. These scenery shots will break the amnesia of what things USED to look like.

    Yes, the woods have changed.

    Maybe fungus will be the next alpha predators, because of increase temperature and moisture. Scary thought.


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