The sky is beginning to glow pink as we bank the turn into the entrance of Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Pennsylvania. We hurry, not wanting to miss the show that is about to begin.
Although we can't see the estimated 100,000 snow geese floating on the sheltered lagoon, we hear their communal voices. It's March, and these magnificent white birds are here for only a few weeks during their migratory passage to the Arctic. After resting and fattening up on local farm crops, they'll continue north to Canada's St. Lawrence River, ending eventually at their Alaskan mating and breeding grounds.
The first streaks of light enable us to make out the bobbing white bodies blanketing the dark lake. They have very slowly begun to spread out onto the larger body of the 400-acre lake to position themselves for takeoff.
Suddenly, the air is filled with the honking and calling of geese communicating their readiness to leave. Their voices build in volume and excitement until they are almost yelling. They rise from the lake in a great sweeping wave that fills the air around us. Thousands and thousands of white birds, their brilliant bodies reflecting the sunrise, swirl around our heads in a united, moving arch.
They engulf us. We throw back our heads to watch them rise. In a matter of seconds, they've disappeared in search of food.
They will not return until the last dim light of day intersects with the emerging evening sky. The show is over, and we are left, earthbound and speechless, to ponder the vastness of their world.
Suddenly, we hear a crack. In a nearby field, in a goose blind, hunters are taking their aim. "Oh no!" squeals my vegetarian friend, who is radically against hunting. "That is so sad."
On the way back to our car, I try to explain the state of affairs for the snow goose. It ain't pretty.
Snow geese and tundra swans overwinter in the Chesapeake Bay region. They began to stop in southern Pennsylvania in the late 1970s on their way back to their breeding grounds in the Arctic.
Since then, their numbers have steadily increased at an annual rate of 8 percent, and if sustained, their numbers are projected to reach 2 million birds by 2015 and 3 million by 2020. This is in part due to restricted hunting regulations and a decrease in hunter harvest, as well as their recently acquired taste for highly nutritious corn and waste grain left in fields in the bay watershed.
Their numbers have gotten too high. They have damaged their breeding grounds in the Arctic, perhaps irreversibly, not only for the snow goose itself but for other nesting birds.
Even in the Chesapeake, the snow geese pose a threat to other birds, as they cut into the food and habitat that shorebirds and other waterfowl need to survive. The Mid-Atlantic coast provides wintering habitat for at least 20 other species of waterfowl.
To try to remedy the snow goose overpopulation problem, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has approved a conservation order for snow geese. This special management action is authorized by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act to reduce populations when traditional management programs fail to control overabundant wildlife populations. Federal and state regulations now allow hunters to kill more snow geese.
Most of the great numbers of snow geese have now left our region and made their way north to the St. Lawrence Seaway. But the hunting season in Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York will extend until mid-April with a daily bag limit of 25 geese in Pennsylvania and New York, and no limit in Maryland.
As wildlife watchers, the great numbers of snow geese are what we come to witness, but we must also remember what is happening in the Arctic. We are hoping the snow goose population does not collapse because of overpopulation and the destruction of habitat and that it can be managed properly. I'll never get my friend to buy a hunting license and shoot geese, but I can try for some understanding.
Cindy Ross has written several books about the outdoors. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.