The temperature was a few degrees above freezing and the evening darkness was just starting to give way to the New Year as we entered the wildlife refuge. Sliding past scores of ducks and Canada geese as they began to grow restless on the first pond, we drove through a short stretch of loblolly pines and headed out onto the dikes.
To our right, thousands of snow geese blanketed the waters. The sun wouldn’t officially rise for another half hour, but this was already turning into be one of those brilliant winter mornings.
We quietly slipped out of the car, binoculars in hand.
Sporadic wing flapping and honking made the whole pond seem alive. And then—with a thunderous boom—the flock took to its wings, rising off the water like a skein of brilliant white yarn unraveling itself against the rosy dawn. The noise was near-deafening, as raucous geese honked madly and their wings beat against the morning sky. They rose with an awkward grace. Five thousand snow geese had just announced the arrival of 2006.
The snow goose (Chen caerulescens) is about two-thirds the size of its more familiar cousin, the Canada goose. The pure, white feathers on its head, body and wings are set off by wingtips of inky black. When the bird is resting on the water, this tucked-back wingtip looks like a short black tail on an otherwise all-white bird.
In spite of its name, not all snow geese are white. A dark morph, with bluish-gray upper parts and a brownish-gray underneath, has only a white upper neck and head, and is commonly referred to as a “blue goose.” Juveniles also lack the distinctive color of the most common form.
All snow geese have pink feet and a rather short, heavy pink bill with a black “grin” patch. The geese use those bills effectively in digging out and biting off tubers and the roots of marsh plants that constitute an important part of their diet.
As we had just witnessed, first light sends most snow geese off the ponds they use as nocturnal refuge. They fly across the countryside, where they will spend the day feeding on the remains of agricultural crops.
As dusk approaches, they once again congregate in huge mats like the ones we saw at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, on the Delmarva’s Eastern Shore.
Centuries ago, snow geese were common in the Chesapeake region. But the usual culprits, exploitative commercial hunting coupled with loss of habitat, decimated their numbers.
By the 1960s, snow geese were rare in these tidal areas. But limits on commercial hunting and the spread of the nation’s magnificent wildlife refuge system have led to a population explosion. Some experts now estimate that more than 500,000 snow geese annually winter on the coastal marshes of the Atlantic seaboard. Even more drop down from their Arctic breeding grounds every fall into the Pacific Northwest, California’s Central Valley, New Mexico, Mexico and the Gulf regions. The numbers have grown so large that biologists now worry that snow geese are putting too much pressure on tundra breeding areas.
Like many other species in their subfamily, Anserinae, snow geese frequently mate for life.
Often, the young stay with their parents through the first winter, exhibiting family bonds that are unusual in the avian world. Although the sexes are similar in appearance, only the female incubates the eggs on the small islands where they nest in the northernmost parts of North America. Both parents brood and protect the young.
When snow and ice threaten to cut off the birds’ food supply, Snow geese head south, and will migrate during day or night.
According to ornithologist David Allen Sibley, there are records of snow geese flying as high as 20,000 feet during mass migrations.
As with many bird species, the full range of biology and behavior of snow geese is of interest to me. But on that magnificent morning, I wasn’t looking at those birds with a clinical eye. We had told family and friends that we were going birding. But a desire to see promise and hope and new beginnings was the real reason for our trip.
As the thousands of snow geese lifted in unison, for a moment our hearts soared with them. The New Year dawned with this simple recognition: Moments of unspeakable beauty are still possible.