Snow Goose Problems


(This 1242nd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 11, 2015.)


Massed geese on Conesus Lake

photo by Jim Kimball


Watching a massive flight of snow geese is a breathtaking ornithological experience. When they are in the air around you, you are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of these beautiful white birds with black wingtips. And when they drop onto an open field or lake they turn it white as the snow of their name, those black primaries almost completely hidden under other feathers.


Many western New York birders travel to Cayuga or Seneca Lake to observe their migration passages between their wintering area in Atlantic coastal waters and the high Arctic open tundra around James and Hudson Bays.


In recent years, however, what was formerly a narrow route down through those eastern Finger Lakes has expanded in our direction. Here on the Niagara Frontier most of our past observations of these geese have numbered in the single digits or occasionally in the dozens. But those numbers are now increasing rapidly as that extension is occurring.


Jim Kinball of Rochester has summarized for me some aspects of this spread: "The previous high count for the Little Lakes Christmas Bird Count (CBC: this count includes Hemlock and Conesus Lakes), I think, was about 8. But then the Little Lakes count on Dec. 26 estimated about 19,000, most in fields southwest of Lima. I think this caught the specific counters quite by surprise. Bob Spahn and others did an estimate the next day in the field near Lima, estimating 100,000. I'm assuming it was from these numbers that then showed up on Conesus Lake by Monday when I checked. I talked to two residents along Conesus Lake and neither had ever seen anything like this. They always get a few hundred tundra swans and a few thousand Canada geese, perhaps, but no significant numbers of snow geese."


Conesus Lake cottagers get to see snow geese up close

photo by Jim Kimball


Spahn provided details of those records: "That this is unusual can be seen in that prior to the 20,000 on the Little Lakes CBC on the 26th, the high was only 6 over 63 years of counts. The Rochester CBC's record high of 100 (a single flock) this year surpassed 50 set in 2012, but before that the high was 5 in 1941."


This year's events may, of course, simply represent an unusual occurrence. I believe, however, that this represents expansion that will soon include our region.


Why? Because the population of snow geese is increasing as nature writer Ken White suggests, "out of control." In the 1970s these birds numbered only in the thousands, but now their total Canadian breeding population is over 5 million and growing. The Hudson and James Bay population that passes east of us is about half of that. In fact, they now outnumber Canada geese in that region between two and three to one.


Sometimes our most attractive birds can be at the same time the most troublesome. The Canada goose is a case in point: this beautiful bird whose V-lined skeins and off-key honking communicates a sense of wildness is also the semi-tame nuisance that slicks our lawns and golf courses with their droppings and drives other species from our marshes.


And now it appears that the snow goose is following their path. On the Pacific coast of British Columbia, for example, reservations have been established and fields baited to attract the vast migrating flocks there and discourage them from damaging farm fields and fouling school and golf course lawns.


But at least we only see these geese during migration. In the far North snow geese are destroying vast ecosystems by rooting out all the sedges and grasses of their nesting grounds leaving exposed bare soil and a virtual desert. In near-shore areas salt then builds up in the soil to the point at which nothing will grow there. In fresh water areas the grubbed out plants are replaced by a mat of inedible mosses. Then the geese simply move on to destroy new areas.


Wildlife managers have increased hunting seasons and bag limits but they are still losing ground. The reduced number of hunters is playing a role in this as well.


I predict that we will soon see these beautiful birds in great numbers locally, but our short-term pleasure will be balanced by this longer-term severe environmental degradation.-- Gerry Rising