By Michael R. Shea
Wherever you are in the Atlantic Flyway, it's time to break out the snow goose decoys. Light geese are on the move, but with such warm weather the migration is slow and spread out, with huntable numbers of birds all the way from Delaware to Quebec.
Justin Foth, a waterfowl, turkey, and upland game bird biologist with the Delaware Division of Fish & Wildlife, flew his last waterfowl survey of the year on February 1. The aerial run covers most of the state, from Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge up to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge. "This year, we counted half as many snow geese as were recorded in 2015 and 2016," Foth says. "Some, I suspect, left early but many I don't believe came down at all."
Temperatures across the Northeast have been all over the place this winter. Days below freezing have swung into the 50s or 60s in many places, resulting in lots of open water. Several massive groups of snows wintered in New York's Finger Lakes and other large bodies of water north of their traditional wintering grounds. In addition, there's been limited snow along the heart of the flyway, and what has fallen has melted quickly. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's daily snowline maps, the hard white line basically runs along the Canadian border, with much of northern New York being totally snow-free—an anomaly for February.
The birds have noticed, and many are pushing north.
"Right now it feels pretty consistent with last year," says Avery Pro Staffer Kevin Addy, who hunts in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. "We might even be in better shape now. Last year by mid-March there were no birds down here, but a lot still rides on this week."
Meteorologists are calling for a hard, warm south wind early this week, with temperatures expected well into the 60s as far north as upstate New York. But that brief summerlike warm spell will be followed by a drop back below freezing for most of the region through the weekend, only to rebound into the 50s early next week. Typically, this time of year snow geese will move on a storm front, especially out of the south.
"It's going to be an interesting spring," says Linda Ziemba, a wildlife biologist at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, south of Syracuse, New York. "We had every species of dabbler on the refuge last week. It's not surprising, because we had a big thaw last week. The marsh usually isn't open in February. But seeing that kind of response from birds was impressive, and incredibly unusual."
Ziemba and Frank Morlock, a wildlife technician with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, conducted a waterfowl count on the refuge on Friday, and logged 28,813 birds in the larger Montezuma wetlands complex. That number doesn't represent the total number of geese using the federal area, but is a snapshot that can be compared to the same date and time in previous years to gauge the overall migration.
"This year is pretty screwy," Morlock says. "We've been seeing snow geese on Montezuma for weeks now. Typically, they start moving into our area right as the north end of Cayuga Lake starts to open up, then as the marshlands in Montezuma open they arrive. That's usually in the first week of March, but this year it's been going on for two weeks already."
Overall, Morlock reports that the snow geese are very close to peak migration numbers in central New York, but with this crazy weather that doesn't necessarily mean it's halfway done.
"They're definitely rolling through now," says New York waterfowl guide Michael Bard (gamehogghuntclub.com). "I have friends in Quebec that are already seeing groups of 2,000 in their field, but overall they're very spread out so far this year."
Bard has a simple barometer for when it's time to break out the snow goose spread. He lives near a small lake that roosts thousands of light geese every year. "Typically, between March 11 and 14, they show up in a group of 10,000 to 20,000," he says. "A week ago, 1,000 where here, and they left right away, followed by another group of 1,000, then a group of 2,500."
Bard, Addy, and many area biologists agree that it's shaping to be a long, drawn-out spring goose migration, which could be a very good thing for hunters.