Warm fall temps delayed snow geese migration

A flock of snow geese takes flight above a field near North Little Creek Road in Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — At last count, the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Contol tallied approximately 23,000 snow geese from Woodland Beach to Broadkill River — a drop in numbers that officials are attributing to warmer than normal temperatures this fall.

“Snow geese are only going to move as far south as their food drives them,” said Justyn Forth, waterfowl, turkey and upland game bird biologist for DNREC. “If there’s still food further north and the weather isn’t too harsh, they’re going to hedge their bet and stay up there so they don’t have as far to migrate back.”

The latest DNREC snow geese total in survey zones five through seven is down from the last available survey in 2014 by nearly 200,000.

But Mr. Forth said the surveys only represent a snapshot in time. The numbers, he said, can be thrown off if birds are north, south or inland of the survey zones the day the counts are taken.

But, he suspects the huge drop in migration numbers is due to a warm fall.

The survey zones, DNREC’s core waterfowl areas, encompass Bombay Hook and Prime Hook national wildlife refuges and Ted Harvey and Little Creek wildlife areas.

Ordinarily, survey flights are made twice monthly, but Mr. Forth said the month of November was skipped because of contract renegotiations. The late October survey, when matched against the first one in December, shows that although the snow geese migration is weak, other waterfowl and Canada geese numbers are on par with previous years.

“From October to December, waterfowl numbers doubled — ducks and geese combined,” Mr. Forth said. “Right around 26,000 birds we counted when I flew over in late October, but on my flight last week that number jumped closer to 50,000.”

DNREC’s finds match, at least anecdotally, the activity that Bombay Hook’s outdoor recreation planner, Tina Watson, has seen.

“The most I’ve seen in one spot is probably 5,000,” she said. “They come and go.”

Although she’s seen the number of snow geese start to pick up in recent weeks, she’s had to disappoint a number of callers wanting to know if the geese have arrived yet.

“Most of our visitors come to see them in big numbers, but they just haven’t been out there like that this year,” she said.

She compares the geese’s absence to last year’s, saying: “It took them forever to get down here and when they did, there weren’t many of them.”

Mr. Forth will likely perform another survey next week, but he maintains that the weather and the snow geese’s daily movements are the likely culprits for the comparatively light migration this year.

“If it gets colder, more snow geese will move into the area, especially if the water stays open,” he said.

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