Too many snow geese are still a lovely sight


BOMBAY HOOK, Del. -- When the Dutch acquired this marshy point from the Indians in 1679, they called it Boompies Hoock. It's said the price they paid was a musket and powder, some liquor and a steel kettle -- about what they paid to buy Manhattan. I'd rather have Bombay Hook.

Since 1937 there has been a national wildlife refuge here, more than 16,000 acres worth, mostly marsh but also including some wooded upland and several big freshwater ponds. Tidal rivers like the Leipsic, Duck Creek and my favorite, Old Woman's Gut, pass through it. It's a wonderful place to see birds of all kinds, especially migrants. More than 300 species have been reported here, and it's possible to see 100 in a day.

I come over sometimes on a late fall afternoon to drive through the refuge and watch the waterfowl pouring into the ponds for the night. Right now there are many thousands of snow geese here, and their presence is especially dramatic, but they are by no means the only attraction.

To the west, the sun drops fast toward the woody horizon. Geese, ducks, hawks and an occasional eagle wheel against the reddening sky. Shorebirds -- avocets, dowitchers, sandpipers, willets -- congregate on mud flats exposed by the falling tide. Avian communication, conducted at top volume and in many languages, fills the air.

To the east and a little north, the huge cooling tower of the nuclear power plant in Salem, New Jersey, seems to spring up directly from the marshes. With the wind blowing hard and carrying the plume of steam away horizontally, it looks like the stack of a colossal train traveling at speed. The open water of Delaware Bay, which separates the refuge and the nuke, aren't visible beyond the expanse of cordgrass and reeds, but sometimes the superstructure of a Philadelphia-bound freighter can be seen in the distance.

The abundance of the snow geese, which so dominate the refuge at this time of year, represents both a triumph and a worry -- a common combination in the wildlife-management world.

Like Canada geese, these are birds which normally breed and nest in the far north, then migrate south for the winter. The snows used to go far south, especially to the Texas and Louisiana marshes along the Gulf of Mexico. Then as rice cultivation spread, they started wintering farther north in the paddies, eating what remained after the harvest.

Now, thanks to Bombay Hook and other refuges, they're commonplace winterers in Maryland and Delaware, too. With the season on migratory Canada geese recently closed to offset a sudden drop in the population of that species, it would be nice to think the snows would make a good substitute for hunters and those who've come to rely on the hunters' dollars. But snow geese are much harder to hunt than the Canadas, being notoriously decoy-shy -- or smarter, perhaps.

As the snow-goose population has grown, the tundra where they nest has been increasingly stressed. Some areas near Hudson's Bay have a thousand nests per square mile. This is hard on the slow-growing native grasses, and when the grasses die the soil dries more quickly, sea-salt accumulates, and productive marshland turns into something resembling a desert. The geese, undeterred, move farther inland, repeating the destructive process there.

Loss of nesting habitat

Eventually, it's likely that the loss of nesting habitat will slow snow-goose reproduction, and that their numbers will naturally decline. Meanwhile their depredations have forced other species, including northern shovelers and yellow rails, to abandon areas they once shared with the snow geese.

In short, while the wildlife managers are proud of the success of the snow geese, if they could just snap their fingers and make large numbers of these big handsome birds disappear, they'd surely do so. The snow geese haven't yet become a local problem in their winter range, as non-migratory Canadas have, but it's clear there are too many of them on the breeding grounds.

Even so, they're quite the scenic attraction at this season in the cold Maryland and Delaware marshes. Most evenings, as they drop down by the thousands through the ebbing light, filling the ponds and tide pools, awestruck human onlookers brave the sharp wind to whirr their camcorders and focus their spotting scopes on the spectacle.

An anti-sentimentalist, or someone primarily concerned with the future of the Hudson's Bay tundra, might remark sourly that they're only geese -- poultry, really -- and ought to be "harvested." But that's a debate for another day. Right now, this evening, they suggest vividly what this waterlogged acreage must have looked and sounded like back in the days when the Dutch were doing their first New World real-estate deals.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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