Canada geese, often the waterfowl most closely identified with the Chesapeake Bay, continue to wing their their way toward a population rebound, according to the annual breeding ground survey.
The aerial survey of nesting grounds in northern Canada counted 93,000 pairs of Atlantic population geese this spring, an increase from the 77,000 counted last year.
“It’s real obvious now that there are more geese when we fly up there,” said Bill Harvey, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources game program population specialist, who participates in the annual survey. “And the Inuits are saying the same thing — that they are seeing a lot more geese.”
This year’s count was three times the record low of 29,000 in 1995, which prompted the first-ever hunting moratorium for the birds along the Atlantic Flyway.
Still, Harvey cautioned that all the news wasn’t good. While the number of breeding pairs increased, the number of successful nests appeared to decline because of the late spring and harsh conditions on the Ungava Peninsula, the vast expanse of land between the Hudson Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
Normally, only single males are seen during the aerial survey because females remain on the nest, incubating the eggs, almost nonstop. This year, Harvey said, many of the birds were seen in pairs — an indication that females were abandoning their nests. As many as two-thirds may have given up nesting, he said.
Also, an on-the-ground survey indicated that nests were producing fewer eggs. Production was 3.6 eggs per nest, down from 4.8 in 1998, Harvey said.
Production was hurt not only because of harsh weather during the breeding season, but also because many of the birds were young, having stemmed from the large 1997 class.
Those birds only began breeding this year and are inexperienced at nesting. As they become older, Harvey said, they will be more effective at nesting and producing young. Also, starting next year, they will be joined by the large 1998 class.
As a result, he said, the outlook for the population is good in the next few years as birds mature and increase in numbers. “The breeding population should build pretty quickly over the next two or three years, maybe faster than it has been building so far,” he said.
The recovery goal for the Atlantic Flyway is 150,000 pairs on the breeding grounds. “Just three or four years ago that seemed pretty far out of reach, but I don’t think it is, now,” Harvey said.
The population plummet was caused by two factors. A series of late springs on the breeding grounds a decade ago hurt reproduction. With fewer goslings produced, hunting pressure was focused on breeding adults.
At the same time, the population of nonmigratory “resident” geese was mushrooming. That kept biologists from immediately recognizing the decline in migrating birds.
The Atlantic Flyway Council, which consists of representatives of Eastern states, Canadian provinces and federal officials from both countries, has agreed that the migrating population is rebounding enough to allow a limited hunting season for the second year in a row, with up to 35,000 allowed to be taken this fall throughout the flyway.
The Department of Natural Resources for Maryland, which was allocated a third of the harvest, has recommended closing the season again this year until the population further rebounds, pending public comment. A final decision is expected by September. Maryland’s Eastern Shore is considered the most important wintering area for Atlantic population Canada geese.
Because the migrating birds often mix with resident birds, an exact population of migratory Canada geese isn’t known. Biologists believe there may be around 700,000 migratory birds — up from an estimated 300,000 in the early 1990s — and about 1 million resident geese.