The Bufflehead Birder

March 31, 2009

A Gaggle of Geese at Middle Creek

Snow Geese Take Off

It can start off as a sudden explosion of white and black wings rising from a hillside, or sometimes just a slim white funnel rising higher and higher until it mushrooms into a blast of deafening honks and beating wings that fill the sky and compel those nearby to gaze upward in absolute awe.

For those who have been to Pennsylvania’s Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area the sight of thousands of Snow Geese taking off at once is unforgettable, and for those who have seen a take off before it’s what brings them back and no visit is complete until they get to see the geese take to the air en masse.


A biker checks out the geese.

Middle Creek is located in Lancaster and Lebanon Counties, and is owned and managed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. The area within Middle Creek comprises of a 400-acre lake and some 6,000 acres of woodlands and agricultural fields. The main concentration of geese is at Willow Point, which is a nice 10-minute walk from the parking area down to the water where there is a excellent view of both open water and surrounding hillsides and fields.

Talk about a gaggle of geese–the open water and hillsides ripple with white feathered bodies. There is constant motion and honking as the geese wander and feed, swim and preen and flap their wings at each other. In fact, the word ”gaggle” has its origins in the 15th Century Middle English verb, “gagel”, or the noun, “gagelen”, both of which arose as mimicry of the sound geese make. For some fun etymological history click here. Also, the word gaggle only applies when geese are on water or on the ground; once geese are airborne they become a flock or a skein.


“Do we constitute a gaggle?”

Even while wandering, bathing, preening, and foraging, the snow geese continued their ”gagelen” as they communicated various bits of information from one end of the hillside to the other. Although, as Snow Geese calls sound to me more like honks most of the time and not so much like gaggling, I might suggest an alternative word–”honkle”.

There’s a honkle  (noun) of geese on the hillside.

The fox had the geese all a-honkle  (past passive participle).

The hills are a-honkle  (descriptive adjective) with the calls of geese.

Take your pick. Either way, the honking or gaggling of geese in flight is a beautiful sound that evokes a surge of yearning and nostalgia, and makes me envy the Snow Geese that ancient connection they still share with our Earth.


A-honklin’ on one foot.

In late February Snow Geese begin moving up from as far down as South Carolina, gathering in numbers until a gaggle may reach as many as 100,000 geese and 5,000 swans flood the Middle Creek landscape at one time. The northward movement of the geese continues until mid-April, the best time seems to be somewhere in mid-March. It’s not an exact science as to when the number of geese will be at its peak but the thawing of the ice-cover at Middle Creek seems to be the key indicator as to the heavier accumulation of waterfowl, especially if southerly winds are blowing.


For a daily update on geese and swan numbers and activity go to the PA Game Commission’s website home page. There select “Middle Creek/Pyamtuning” listed on the right sidebar, then select, “Waterfowl Migration“.

Snow Geese are dimorphic and come in either the conventional white or the more unusual ‘blue’. It is the Greater Snow Goose (Chens caerulescens atlantica) that comes to Middle Creek, while the Lesser Snow Goose (Chens c. caerulenscens) is a western subspecies. Both types winter in the United States and fly north to breed in the arctic and subarctic of Canada.

Blue Goose and a tagged Snow Goose

         The white goose was most likely banded by the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS).

Believe it or not, it used to be that Middle Creek saw nary a snow goose or swan. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1990’s when the first Snow Geese and Tundra Swans made their appearance on the scene at Middle Creek and other inland areas of Pennsylvania.


 The first Snow Geese came to Middle Creek in 1994.

There was a time when the populations of Snow Geese, in general, were nothing to gawk at but climate changes in the 60’s and 70’s, transformation of coastal wetlands into agricultural industries, and wildlife refuges that sought to encourage increase of numbers of waterfowl for hunters have increased both the Eastern and Western populations of Snow Geese. Now the numbers of these birds are too vast to prevent degradation in what remains of their wetland habitats, and neither natural predation on the geese, nor hunting make neither ding nor dent in curbing the populations of geese.

There are several sources that discuss this issue in detail but if you would like to see some wonderful photography along with the whole story behind the Snow Geese population explosion, please check out Birder’s Lounge.

Meanwhile, Middle Creek Wildlife Area’s provision of open water and plentiful food sources in the cultivated fields that were originally intended for Canada Geese and other waterfowl make Middle Creek one of the prime staging areas in the Atlantic Flyway for both Snow Geese and Tundra Swans during migrations. Despite the issues of concern with the excessive gaggles and honkles of Snow Geese, it’s impossible not to enjoy the immensity and great sound of their presence.


That morning, as I stood at Willow Point, enjoying the camraderie of others who had gathered to enjoy the arrival of the geese, I got into a conversation with a fellow Middle Creek Snow Goose fan, who had been bringing his girls there since the 1960’s. The kids were now in college but he still came over on the weekends to see the geese.

Then one of the resident Bald Eagles left its perch. We could hear it; the first few honks of alarm, which, as more and more geese took up the call, would swell into a chaos of honks, as snow geese rose off the lake in a cloud of white. No one spoke. This wasn’t a moment for words. Over the lake it was a cyclone swirl of beating wings, a grand gaggling chorus of honks. Eventually, as the threat of the eagle passed, the honking eruption faded.

“Well, now I can go home. I’ve seen what I’ve been waiting for all morning,” announced my companion.

That sums it up very well for anyone who has seen a grand gaggle Take Off and the sky just a-honkle with geese. It’s what I’ll be looking forward to again next year and in the years that follow.

Click on this image to see a Take Off in action.

You can also click on the sidebar under videos to see other snow geese video clips.

March 17, 2009

Peril on the Jetty at Barnegat Light

Filed under: Main Posts — Tags: , — admin @ 4:56 pm

The jetty at Barnegat Light in New Jersey is a popular spot for photographing and seeing wintering waterfowl. And while I was aware of the potential broken ankle or banged up knee on the rocks, I never imagined the following hazard.  

Below is a link sent to the Delaware Valley Ornithology Club from a local bird photographer that describes a terrifying and unexpectedly perilous situation he fell into out on the jetty at Barnegat Light in New Jersey. There are also some fantastic shots of the waterfowl at Barnegat, too.

March 2, 2009

Barnegat Birds 2009

Filed under: Digiscoping — admin @ 6:23 pm

The inlet at Barnegat Lighthouse in New Jersey is known for its high winds and last year the photography outing with the Delaware Valley Ornithology Club (DVOC) was postponed twice before we landed a day with a wind that allowed you to keep your hat and remain standing. This year we were blessed with a gentle breeze, warm sun, and a dry, slick-free jetty stretching along the shore’s curve out towards the blue water of Barnegat Bay.


Brant Geese relax and preen

Walking on the jetty rocks with my scope was a cinch compared to the slick wet rocks of last year. Harlequins, Surf Scoters, and Longtails swam in small clusters just off the jetty, diving for fish. It was an attractive sight, all these ducks with their sharp white markings on bright blue water. Great lighting. But the high bright sun was also playing havoc with my ability to see through my LCD Viewer. I know it sounds like a repetitive excuse, but really, it’s true. The viewfinder displayed bobbing waterfowl alright, but I still couldn’t be sure of how well-focused they were. Even with my hood draped over my head and the camera.But whine as I might over my LCD viewer, I couldn’t beat having subjects like these ducks and other birds to photograph. Below are stills from a video of a male Harlequin taking a bath.




A fairly cooperative Common Loon spent lots of time above water, preening and enjoying the sun, and that gave me plenty of opportunity for shooting.




Black-bellied Plovers also come down as far as NJ in the winter and I was able to see what one looks like when it’s not in summer breeding plumage.


Black-bellied plover

Shot taken this summer - black belly is obvious here.

An Ipswich Sparrow also made an appearance on the rocks of the jetty. The Ipswich is a race of the Savannah Sparrow found along the East Coast marshes and beaches. These birds love mollusks and insects. In winter they feed mainly on seeds.

I was happy to snag a couple of shots of this little guy who scurried (not hopped) around on the rocks, popping up from the crevices in between groups of birders making their way to the jetty’s end.




The male Surf Scoter has one of the funkiest bills. Beautiful contrast against the black body. Easy to ID from a distance. Behind him are some Long-tails.


I must be spoiled this past fall with my kingfishers and herons from this fall, who either remain still for a long while or have predictable perching spots. The ducks at Barnegat, afloat and riding a current, however, were more troublesome to sight in. I tried finding a stable landmark and aiming off that, but even then I found it difficult to capture my target duck. Guess I’ll need more trips to Barnegat to refine this. Meanwhile, it did help to have the video mount. I would loosen both screws and then at least I could follow birds as they swam both horizontally and vertically.

A flock of Long-tail Ducks were cruising up and down along the inlet. The male has the long tail, which is not so evident as it is held low to the water, only raised when the duck is alarmed. The males also have the pink bill.



An interesting note from Birds of North America Online (Cornell): Long-tails of both sexes have an interesting territorial defense tactic. They drive off the female. The idea is that the intruding male will follow her and high-tail it out of there. Saves energy. No one gets hurt.


When things were in focus the bright sun supplied enough light to get sharp shots and some sharp action too, like the long-tail diving. I used my sports setting at times and shot off a bunch of frames while the birds were swimming.

A trip to the shore is not complete without a gull shot. Low tide provided an all-you-can-eat mollusk bar for the Herring Gull below.



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