Skip to content

Snow Goose Scoop

by Bryan on October 8th, 2010

Blogger’s Note: Here’s a reprise of my Snow Goose forecast for 2010. I suspect it won’t change much this fall, but I’ll update the blog with breaking Snow Goose news as it happens this fall. Stay tuned!

For the better part of three decades, as the autumn leaves swirled around Vermont, the October snowstorm in Addison has been an annual rite of fall. The migration of Snow Geese through Vermont is an event not to be missed. But here’s the forecast for this fall: the blizzard ain’t happening anymore.

This isn’t to say you won’t find a few thousand Snow Geese in Addison between October and December. But the predictable, astonishing spectacle of swirling, honking masses of geese filling fields and skies is now but a fond memory. It is a story of success, too much success, wildlife management and the predilections of a bird smart enough to discover agriculture. For an explanation, including tips on finding and identifying Ross’s Goose in the East (with a cool photo), plus an update on Snow Goose numbers in Vermont, please read on.

Here’s Some History

First recognize that the Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens) comes in two varieties: Greater Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens atlantica) and Lesser Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens caerulescens). Either one ranks among the most gregarious and spectacular birds of the arctic. Greater Snow Goose, the race we see in the East (along with a few Lessers mixed in) breeds from the northern Foxe Basin and central Baffin Island of the eastern arctic northward to Ellesmere Island and into northwestern Greenland. It winters almost exclusively along the Atlantic Coast and points inland, from roughly New Jersey to North Carolina. Along its migration, north and south, Greater Snow Goose uses, among other areas, the Champlain Lowlands and the tidal marshes of St. Lawrence River for staging and feeding.

Since at least the early 1980s, Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area in Addison, Vermont, has been a legendary goose viewing spot. The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department encouraged agriculture practices there that provided food for migrating birds. It also brought thousands of people each fall to a state roadside viewing area along Route 17 near Dead Creek; it was a delightful blend of birders, leaf-peepers and surprised motorists, all gathered for jaw-dropping views of geese numbering in the many thousands.

Population Explosion

The period of the Snow Goose popularity in Vermont coincided with a skyrocketing overall population of Snow Geese. Traditionally, most Greater Snow Geese wintered in federal wildlife refuges of the south-central Atlantic Flyway (Virginia and North Carolina). But since the mid-1980s the population shifted northward, with larger concentrations occurring in Maryland and Delaware, and to a lesser extent New Jersey. One explanation for the shift was that the Snow Goose discovered agriculture. The availability of grain fields in mid-Atlantic states, along with increasing temperatures across the wintering grounds, are believed to have helped more geese survive winter, which contributed to a growing population.

Over the past three decades, the Greater Snow Goose population exploded to approximately 1 million birds from roughly 200,000 in 1980, a five-fold increase. And it brought upwards of 20,000 of that population to Addison during its hey-day. We had a blast with them.

Population Controls

But so huge was the population that Snow Geese began to over-run and damage their arctic breeding grounds; they also became a problem for farmers on wintering grounds. So wildlife authorities decided to institute additional hunting and other measures designed to drop the population toward between 500,000 and 750,000 birds. It is a level that wildlife biologists believe “optimizes the balance between a healthy population that can easily recover from catastrophic events and does not negatively impact its natural habitats and associated biodiversity.” It’s not yet clear that goose numbers are dropping according to plan.

Ross’s Goose: A Needle in a Haystack

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the first week of October brought thousands of Snow Geese to Addison. The annual honking sea of white remains among my fondest of avian memories in nearly four decades of birding. But another pastime was finding Ross’s Goose among the ocean of Snows. Ross’s Goose (Chen rossii) is, in the East, a rare visitor. It breeds in the central arctic and along the western shores of Hudson Bay and winters in the southwestern United States. But a few Ross’s Geese would inevitably find their way east with the Greater Snow Geese.

Ross’s Goose looks like a diminutive Snow Goose. The best field marks are its smaller size, stubbier bill (lacking the black “grin patch”) and steeper forehead. Below is a composite photo I’ve created with the two species. The marks should be obvious. (Digital photographers might note an unequal white balance issue evident in this merged photo of the two species; in the field, Ross’s Goose appears whiter than Snow Goose.) In situ, pulling out a single Ross’s Goose from among many thousands of Snow Geese was always a challenge; it bestowed bragging rights for those among us who did it readily and routinely.

So Where Are the Geese?

In short, they’re in New York. Vermont has lost its goose empire to the Empire State. Along with the simple decreasing population, Snow Geese seem to be staging in agricultural fields “across the pond” on the other side of Lake Champlain. “The birds are migrating more through New York, perhaps due to the extensive food that’s available in farm fields over there,” says John Hall, the spokesman for the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. These birds do have wings, after all.

Birders are bearing this out. Enterprising goose-chasers have in recent years been locating large flocks on the New York side of the lake. I’ll try in future posts to keep tabs on locations and even include maps to good sites.

As of Friday, October 8, Snow Goose numbers at Dead Creek amounted to about 200 birds, with between 600 and 1,000 Canada Geese, says Hall. He believes Snow Goose numbers could peak at as many as 3,000 birds this fall, a level similar to the 2009 peak. It will be but a wisp compared to the goose shows of the past few decades.

Recognize that even if Snow Goose numbers approach 3,000, you may not see them from Route 17. They can be hidden in a depression off to the south, where they can sometimes be viewed if you return to Route 22A, drive about one mile south, then head west on Gage Road.

Do visit the Champlain Valley this fall. Even if you don’t find the goose show happening, you may find, among other delights, additional waterfowl species, Rough-legged Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, Bald Eagle, lingering shorebirds and even a few southbound Monarch butterflies. I hope to see you out there.

Note: Data and insights for this post came from my own observations of these birds over the past 25 years, here in Vermont and on mid-Atlantic wintering grounds, and from the Management Plan for Greater Snow Geese in the Atlantic Flyway, a publication from an alliance of wildlife officials from the United States and Canada.

EmailFacebookTwitterDiggInstapaperBlogger PostDeliciousShare
  1. Hi Kathi,

    Glad you’re back. Sounds as if you hit the geese on a good day! How many did you see?

  2. Kathi Squires permalink

    Thank you for the wonderful and informative post! Years ago I remember seeing a number of Snow Geese in East Montpelier as well. Altho I’ve been out of state for the past 20+ yrs, I’ve just relocated and had the chance to go to Dead Creek on Sunday. A wonderful day and was delighted in seeing them fly so low overhead… you could hear the air move over thier wings…

  3. nona Estrin permalink

    Hi Bryan!!! This is the best explination out there. Thanks for posting it. Don’t we miss those huge numbers of birds! I also miss having them fly over East Montpelier by the many hundreds on their way to Dead Creek. On a full moon night, flock after flock! So far I have seen not one airborn flock of SG in 2010. Today there are 2,000 birds on the refuge, according to the outgoing message there. Thinking of heading over from the lake where we are this week. Love from C and KN

  4. Great post, Bryan. I wish I had been in the state to see the geese at their peak. According to Vermont eBird, on October 24, 1992, the Snow Geese at Dead Creek reached 50,000 in number!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The Snow Goose Scoop – Part II | The Daily Wing

Comments are closed.