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It’s in your nature: Geese and Swans

Early in my teaching career, (circa 1980) I remember doing a short lesson on bird migration. I asked my classes why birds needed to migrate.

Most of the responses were to escape the freezing temperatures of winter. In some cases that is true, but mostly they leave because they have more difficulty finding their primary food.

The prior January, I remembered taking a photo of a large flock of Canada geese feeding in a harvested corn field on a food plot near Beltzville Lake. The lake was nearly ice covered and the field was blanketed with a few inches of snow. I showed them the picture and convinced them that geese didn’t mind the cold if food was available.

Finding wintering Canada geese then was an oddity. We rarely had any geese over winter in this region. Boy have things changed. To my chagrin, resident Canada geese are now “everywhere.”

They are not my favorite birds. They are absolutely too numerous and their excrement befouls parks, school practice fields, golf courses, and local ponds and waterways.

In addition, it appears that the huge “V’s” of migration geese in autumn and spring have really decreased. Has the lineage of migrating Canada geese been replaced by one that remains in the Times News region and throughout our state? I’m sure besides yours truly, school groundskeepers, golf course managers, and local farmers aren’t happy with the turn of events either.

Back to better things, besides Canada geese (not Canadian geese) most folks are probably familiar with their cousins, the snow geese. In Lehigh and Northampton Counties in particular, snow geese that bred on the tundra have found their way to the farm fields here.

Some mornings, flock after flock take flight and fill the sky. The sight of thousands of these white geese with black wingtips is awe inspiring. But if you are a farmer with acres and acres of winter wheat you don’t want those flocks to feed there.

Snow geese can also be destructive by not only eating the stalks above the ground, they usually yank the whole plant from the soil.

About the first week of March with favorable south or southwest winds, they begin their long flight back to the Arctic. Snow geese numbers have risen steadily the last 15 years and not surprisingly, that quick rise concerns conservationists.

Just a month ago, the “birding hotline” reported an oddity at Beltzville State Park. A white-fronted goose, had dropped in and was feeding with the resident Canada geese. White-fronted geese breed in the far northwestern Tundra and any sightings here are rare. However, a population of these geese also breeds in Greenland and this straggler may have arrived here, a bit off course.

The last occasional visitor to this region is the Tundra Swan. About every other year a flock or two chooses to rest on Beltzville where I have observed them. Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster and Lebanon Counties, hosts a large overwintering tundra swan population, sometimes nearly 10,000 strong. Winter visitors “flock” to Middle Creek to observe them, and the unbelievable spectacle of 50,000 or more snow geese that spend winter months there.

Our region doesn’t host these huge numbers of waterfowl, but we do have a variety of geese and swans. So, Just Get Out There.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: Mute swans, the swans seen on estates, private ponds, etc. were introduced here from Europe. These swans weigh about ___ pounds. A. 10 B 15 C. 20 D. 30

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: Songbirds’ night migrations allows them to feed in daylight and fly at night to avoid predators.

Email Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com

A small flock of Tundra swans drifts on a cold Beltzville Dam. After wintering farther south, many in Lancaster County, they sometimes make a stop at our local lakes. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
One of the prettiest sights in nature is a flock of snow geese, with black tipped wings, gracing a blue January sky.
A mute swan, the swan from the “Ugly Duckling” fairy tale, was introduced to the U.S. from Europe.
A blue goose, a color morph occurring in about 1/100 snow geese, feeds in a Lehigh County field this past January
An errant white-fronted goose, probably from Greenland, stopped and fed with local Canada geese at Beltzville this spring.