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Snow Geese invasion put on hold

Snow  Geese in flight.
Snow Geese in flight.
Duane Sedlock

From mid-February to late March, many Snow Geese spend time in Pennsylvania, fueling up for a return to their arctic breeding grounds in May. Peak numbers usually occur in early March, with major concentration areas located in Lancaster and Lebanon counties, with lesser number in Berks, Lehigh and Montour counties.

Snow Geese in flight over the Lehigh Valley.
Duane Sedlock

The numbers of Snow Geese in our area over the past few years seem to be steadily increasing as they are being spotted in new areas all the time. Still, the Snow Geese invasion is somewhat weather dependent. With the recent rash of snowfall they are no where around, evidently flying farther south to more desirable pastures. So it may be awhile before we see them.

But, for several weeks in January, Lehigh Valley residents got an early preview of possible things to come as large flocks of Snow Geese were seen in spent cornfields and along several local waterways.

Large numbers were spotted at the Fogelsville Dam, in fields and quarries along Route 329 in Allen Township, in fields along Route 145 in Whitehall Township, in fields along Mauch Chunk Road in Whitehall and North Whitehall townships, at Green Pond in Bethlehem Township and along the Lehigh River in Bethlehem Township.

This large bird is easily distinguishable from the Canada Goose by its white color with its black wing tips, being seen in large numbers and by its loud honking sound while in flight. Snow Geese can range in size from 27 to 33 inches, with a wingspan of 4 ½ to 5 feet and can weigh over 7 pounds.

Their diet is entirely vegetarian, consisting of grasses and grains, grazed from damp soils or even shallow water. They rip vegetation from the ground and can cause damage to areas where there are large numbers of them.

Snow Geese fly south from the Arctic for the winter in huge, honking flocks that may appear as a "U" formation or simply as a large "snowstorm" of white birds. They spend the colder seasons in warmer wintering areas.

At winter's end, Snow Geese fly north, sometimes more than 3,000 miles to their breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra. Pairs mate for life, and produce two to six eggs each year in a shallow ground nest.

In 1916, Snow Geese had become so rare in the eastern United States that hunting of the species was banned. Since that time, the birds have made a remarkable comeback and with thriving populations hunting was reinstated. In fact, the birds have become so numerous in some places that they threaten to destroy their own habitat.

The breeding population of Snow Geese has increased by more than 300% since the mid-1970’s and continues to increase at a rate of more than 5% per year. The Snow Goose is now one of the most abundant species of waterfowl in the world, with a population between 6 and 7 million with numbers that are the highest they have been since population records have been kept.

The Atlantic Flyway population of light geese, (Snow Geese and Ross' Geese) increased from approximately 50,000 birds in the mid-1960’s to approximately one million birds in recent years. Most of these birds pass through Pennsylvania during spring and fall migrations and spend the winter in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and southeastern parts of Pennsylvania.

Concern about the overabundance of Snow Geese has been growing for years. An international "Arctic Goose Habitat Working Group" concluded in 1998 that action was needed to limit the Snow Goose population. A goal of 500,000 birds has since been established for the Atlantic Flyway. The only practical way to reduce populations is to increase the annual hunter harvest.

Snow Geese are federally protected migratory game birds, and their hunting is managed on a population-by-population basis.

Pennsylvania's Snow Goose harvest has been steadily increasing over the past decade averaging about 11,000 per year. During the 2013 Snow Goose Conservation Season (an extended hunting season), a reported 578 active Pennsylvania hunters harvested 3,162 Snow Geese. Still, the conservation season was designed not to threaten the long-term status of the snow geese. Waterfowl managers carefully monitor the status of Snow Geese annually to ensure the population is not over harvested.

To hunt for Snow Geese and Ross' Geese , a smaller but nearly identical species, Pennsylvania hunters need a general hunting license, Federal Duck Stamp (for individuals 16 and older), a Pennsylvania Migratory Bird License and a 2014 Snow Goose Permit. Click here for more info on goose hunting in PA.

Since the late 1990’s, tens of thousands of these big, white birds have used the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area located on the Lebanon/Lancaster county line, as a stopover during their northward migration making it one of the best places on the east coast to see incredible numbers of Snow Geese.

The Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area is a 6,254-acre project created by the Pennsylvania Game Commission in 1973 as a management area for waterfowl. The centerpiece of the Middle Creek project is a 756-acre propagation area that surrounds a 400-acre man-made lake. In recent years, as many as 100,000 to 150,000 of these birds have descended there during the spring migration. Thousands of tundra swans have also made Middle Creek a part of their migration route along with many species of ducks.

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