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In This Place

A flurry of snow geese and other winter changes

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Ryan Schain
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Snow Goose

While it seemed back in December like winter may never come, the previously slumbering season has thoroughly asserted itself in the last week. This is not all bad for the bird watching set. Cold weather tends to stir the pot, bringing new birds in and flushing others out of thickets and into yards in search of food and water. New ducks arrive, refugees from now frozen northern waters, and local ducks concentrate in shrinking open water patches, making them easier to find. As we approach Mid-winter, there’s also the increasing chance to find a certain big white bird with “Snow” in the name. No, not that one — I covered Snowy Owls a few weeks ago. Think even bigger, and vegetarian.

Over the last week or so the Cape and Islands has experienced some fowl weather in the form of a flurry of Snow Geese. Normally scarce to absent, suddenly Nantucket has up to a couple dozen of them, and others have turned up in Truro, Provincetown, Orleans, and Marstons Mills. When they’re around, Snow Geese aren’t elusive — picture a good-sized all-white goose standing in a ballfield or marsh somewhere. Two have been hanging out on Snow’s Field in what I refer to as “downtown Truro” — this is a small patch of lawn along the Pamet River. Others have been in wilder locales, like marshes at Nauset Beach and in Provincetown.

These Arctic nesting geese normally winter in marshes and big farm fields in the Mid-Atlantic states, California’s Central Valley, and Gulf Coast states. In these areas they gather in huge noisy flocks of many thousands — the sight and sound of that many Snow Geese taking off at once can be breathtaking, much more of a blizzard than a flurry. These locust-like numbers hint at a darker issue around this species — through no fault of their own, Snow Geese have become a bit of a problem. They represent one of the more interesting case studies of how human landscape changes can create a cascade of negative consequences across entire continents.

Snow Geese benefit a little too much from big agriculture fields, which provide a food source not previously available to the species. They spend all winter fattening up on waste grain and new plant growth in southern rice and other fields. So winter survival is unnaturally high, and in spring they come in hot and hungry to the Arctic coastal tundra where they breed. Here they grub up all the grasses and sedges, roots and all, often denuding huge areas. This negatively impacts other bird species trying to breed there, and declines in Semipalmated Sandpipers and Red-necked Phalaropes are linked to this overgrazing.

This overpopulation and overgrazing has been going on for decades, and one has to wonder when they’ll finally crash. So far they haven’t, despite efforts by U.S. Fish and Wildlife to cut the population in half through increased hunting. Some years hunters have taken 900,000 Snow Geese in the central flyway without even denting the breeding population. Researchers in the Arctic see them spreading blob-like into new areas, eating willows and any other plants they can find right down to the ground.

I probably ruined Snow Geese for you with that bummer of a story, but don’t get too down, as they are still a handsome wild animal and always a nice find around here. I suspect a few more are out there right now hiding in plain sight, so go take a gander at your local ballfield goose flocks for these and other rare Arctic geese — even less expected species like Pink-footed Goose, Greater White-fronted Goose, and the ultra-rare Ross’s Goose are also increasing across the continent, and could be out there somewhere. If that still hasn’t goosed your interest, consider that with lots of temps in the 20s forecasted in the coming weeks, goose watching is a birding activity you can do from your car. And if you find any good ones, make sure to honk.