For the fourth year in a row, the hunting season for migratory Canada geese — the waterfowl that is perhaps most closely identified with the Chesapeake Bay — will be closed as biologists wait for populations along the Atlantic Flyway to rebound from historic lows.

This year’s annual survey of nesting grounds in northern Canada counted a 33 percent decline in the number of breeding birds observed last year.

But biologists believe the count was skewed by an earlier than normal spring on the breeding grounds, and they remain confident that, overall, the birds’ population is rebounding in response to the hunting moratorium that was imposed in 1995.

Larry Hindman, waterfowl project manager with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the aerial survey — flown at about 200 feet — normally flushes the adult male or female off the nest, making them easy to count.

But this year’s warm spring caused many of the young birds to hatch before the survey was flown, altering the behavior of the parents. Instead of being flushed, many remained motionless or sought cover when the plane flew over, making them difficult to count, he said.

This June, observers in the plane counted 42,200 breeding pairs, down from the 63,200 estimated in 1997. Had the count been a week or two earlier, Hindman said, the count may have been closer to last year’s number. “We’re pretty comfortable that the timing of the survey influenced the results this year,” Hindman said. “Although we feel there were similar numbers of breeding geese as last year, the survey showed a reduction.”

On a positive note, Hindman said on-the-ground surveys conducted by Canadian biologists found that the number of eggs per nest appeared to improve slightly from the 4.6 average seen last year.

Also, biologists believe the warm weather and early hatch could increase the survival of young birds through the summer months and prepare them for the southward migration.

The Eastern Shore of the Bay historically is the most important wintering grounds for Atlantic Flyway geese. Before the season was closed, Canada goose hunting was estimated to be worth $40 million to $50 million a year on the Eastern Shore. In Maryland's Kent County, a study in the 1970s found that goose hunting was second in economic impact only to agriculture.

Although this year’s count is substantially improved from the record low of 29,000 seen in 1995 when hunting was closed, it is still does not meet the thresholds for reopening the season, which calls for reaching 60,000 breeding pairs and having sustained growth.

“We think we reached 60,000 pairs, but what we haven’t seen is what we would consider sustained population growth,” Hindman said.

But that could change soon, Hindman added. When the large hatch from 1997 reaches breeding age, which will begin happening in 2000, the population could begin to expand dramatically. When those hatched this year join in, starting in 2001, the population could grow like “compounding interest,” Hindman said.

“Good nesting success on the breeding grounds and higher survival of adults and young during the fall, winter and spring will speed the long-term recovery of the species,” agreed Paul Schmidt, chief of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Migratory Bird Management Office. “Once young females from these years of good production reach breeding age, pair estimates should increase rapidly and ensure a sustained recovery.”

The objective of the Atlantic Flyway Council, which represents state and provincial wildlife agencies in the United States and Canada, is to reach 150,000 breeding pairs in the Ungava Region east of Hudson Bay where most of the flyway’s Canada geese breed.

The migratory Canada goose population is separate from the “resident” Canada geese, whose population has exploded in recent years. The resident birds, which do not migrate, have become nuisances in parks, golf courses and other urban and suburban areas.

Limited hunting seasons have started in many states in recent years to control the resident population and — for the first time in a decade — surveys last winter showed a slight drop in their numbers.

Hindman said several states were interested in having a limited hunting season for migratory geese because it would allow them greater latitude in setting seasons aimed at controlling resident birds. Right now, those seasons are limited to protect the migratory geese.

The rise of the resident geese has mirrored the decline of migratory birds. The population of resident birds grew from an estimated 300,000 in 1989 to more than 1.1 million in 1997, while the migratory bird population fell from more than 1 million to 300,000 over the same period.

The growth of the resident population, in fact, masked the decline of the migratory birds and it wasn’t until the breeding ground surveys began several years ago that biologists realized the migrants were in trouble. A series of hard winters and late springs on the breeding ground in the late 1980s and early 1990s slashed the reproductive success of the migrant geese.

While the hunting regulations for migratory geese may be eased somewhat in a year or two, Hindman said managers will take a cautious approach before any large-scale hunting is resumed.

“Now we have the breeding ground surveys necessary to make smart decisions,” Hindman said. “What we want to guard against is taking risks with this population. It’s too important to take risks with, and we want to have a real good comfort feeling that it is out of the trouble area and on the way up. And I think we’re on the way up.”