Snow geese season now in full flight

DOVER — As temperatures begin to drop in early December, it’s a perennial Delawarean expectation to see hordes of snow geese descend on the peninsula.

The state’s position on the Atlantic Flyway, large swaths of marshland refuge and farm fields plentiful with waste grain have created the perfect winter getaway for the birds that annually retreat from their frozen breeding ground in the Canadian arctic.

According to recent DNREC counts, this snow goose season is in full swing.

On a Nov. 30th flyover count, DNREC waterfowl biologist Justyn Foth estimated there were about 45,000 snow geese taking up residence in Kent and Sussex counties.

“That count is taken from our core waterfowl area between Lewes and Woodland Beach,” he said. “We also estimated about 14,500 ducks and about 7,000 Canada geese giving us a total waterfowl count of about 66,000.”

Although this count is about what’s expected this time of year, Mr. Foth says, it’s significantly up from last year’s count on the same day.

“That survey tallied up a total of 39,000 in the state, only about 8,000 of which were snow geese,” he added. “It was a lot warmer this time of year last year so that’s why the count was down. We saw fewer at the start of the season because they showed up later, then when the weather got colder, they moved further south.

“The numbers we’re seeing right now are a lot more typical for this time of year. Our peak waterfowl abundance occurs between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We expect to see the number climb a little more in the next surveys.”

For almost 40 years, the Division of Fish & Wildlife has performed flyover counts to keep general tabs on the waterfowl population. Using a small plane, Mr. Foth and a pilot fly the same basic route twice per month between October and the end of January.

“We work from north to south or south to north but fly an east/west transect about every half mile,” said Mr. Foth. “We’re up about 100 to 150 feet so I usually have about 10 to 15 second windows to count flocks of birds or individuals under the passenger side of the plane.”

Count not exact

Not meant to be an exact count, Mr. Foth says the agency’s count for the past few decades — done roughly the same way each year — has provided a historical data set that can be used to monitor waterfowl populations.

“Our hunters would like to think the count is done to let them know where they should be hunting,” joked Mr. Foth. “But really it’s so we have a long-term data set to examine trends by.

“For instance, if there was an oil spill or some type of man-made disaster to happen, we could look at the data to make an estimation on how much of the bird population may have been affect. We’re tracking environmental impacts and supporting mitigation mostly.”

While it might be assumed that tracking wildlife populations to ensure that they remain robust, in the snow geese’s case, data trends actually lead wildlife managers to select the species for a bit of population suppression.

Geese numbers skyrocket

“Early on in the data series back in the 70s, we counted very few snow geese,” said Mr. Foth. “But then in the 80s and 90s, their numbers skyrocketed. Ultimately, this lead to the Snow Goose Conservation Order hunting season which follows our regular waterfowl season. It’s very liberalized — you can use electronic calls and there is no bag limit.”

According to the Delaware Division of Fish & Wildlife, the conservation order began in 2009 as part of an Atlantic Flyway-wide effort to reduce the population of greater snow geese.

Snow geese numbers reached levels that were apparently causing damage to their breeding grounds in the Canadian arctic as well as depredation of the wetlands and agricultural areas where the birds overwinter in the Mid-Atlantic, including Delaware.

Mr. Foth says that snow geese can be a nuisance to farmers in some instances, but under most circumstances cash crops are already harvested by the time the geese arrive.

“Most years they aren’t an issue, but years like this one where many farmers didn’t harvest their soybeans until later than normal may have had some problems with them,” he added. “They can get up to some pest behavior with winter wheat though.

Unlike Canada geese that graze, sort of like little lawn mowers that just take a little off the top, snow geese are grubbers who actually pull plants out by the roots. That can be detrimental to winter wheat crops.”

Mr. Foth says the conservation order has been mostly successful in maintaining a “sustainable” snow geese population.

“It’s knocked back their population across the flyway to an estimated 800,000 geese,” he said. “The goal is to work that down to about 600,000-700,000 snow geese, but generally the program has had a positive impact in maintaining their levels. It’s a different story mid-continent though, where lesser snow geese populations are continuing to increase.”

For bird watchers, Mr. Foth advises heading to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge where thousands of snow geese are currently congregating. For hunters, Mr. Foth says not to forget to sign up for a conservation order permit.

“Hunters wanting to participate can register for a free Snow Goose Conservation Order permit number after Jan. 1,” he said. “Last year, we had about 800 people register for a permit.”

Hunting season

The regular snow geese hunting season opened on Oct. 3 and runs to Feb. 2 (and includes Feb. 9). It includes a 25 goose daily bag limit with no possession limit. The Snow Goose Conservation Order runs from Feb. 4-8 and Feb. 11 though April 12.

During the conservation order there’s no bag limit or possession limit. To register for a permit, visit egov.delaware.gov/htr.

For some it may be hard to image what to do with a large snow goose harvest, but Mr. Foth says making jerky and sausage are common practices among Delmarva hunters.

“I can’t speak for all the other hunters, but when I’ve gone out and hunted them, I either turn them into jerky or goose sausage sticks,” he said.

“It’s fairly common. However, because they eat a similar diet to Canada geese, they tend to taste similar so people who like eating Canada geese sometime use them as a replacement.”

Either way, the snow geese usually pack up and head north again around the second week of March notes Mr. Foth.

“The whole Delmarva peninsula is kind of their southern terminus for overwintering, some make it all the way down to North Carolina, but not many,” he said “When they start heading back to the Canadian arctic, the majority of them will actually make a stop off at the Saint Lawrence Seaway to refuel before continuing their trek home.”

DNREC’s most current and historical waterfowl survey data stretching back to 1974 can be viewed at: dnrec.alpha.delaware.gov/dnrec-open-data/.

 

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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