Everyone seems to identify different heralds for the changing seasons. For instance, many people feel spring has arrived when they sight their first Robin. For others, spring may be marked by the first budding trees or blooming crocus. For me, it’s when hundreds of thousands of snow geese make their annual visit to the Illinois River Valley.
I became an Illinois River Valley resident about 30 years ago when I came to the region for a job. Quickly, I fell in love with the rural scenery of the area. But the wildlife and the river itself have really captured my heart and have given me a strong sense of place. Now when I think of seasons, I instantly, think of what happens in a river valley as a flyway for migratory birds. Near where I live there is a network of backwater lakes connected to the Illinois River and such habitats are major draws for migratory birds. These sites include The Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Emiquon Refuge and Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, and the State of Illinois’s Anderson Lake and Banner Marsh — all located between Peoria and Havana, Illinois. Here one can find American White Pelicans, Tundra Swans, Canada Geese, Snow Geese, occasional Sandhill Cranes, Egrets, Herons, Coots, Grebes, Bitterns, about twenty species of ducks, and another twenty or so species of shorebirds. I’m sure I’m missing some kind of birds group here. The list goes on and on.
Of all of the spring migrators, the most dramatic arrivals are the Snow Geese that stream in flocks numbering in the tens of thousands. They arrive over a 3 or 4 week period between February and March coming from their southerly wintering grounds which range from North Carolina to Mexico. While Snow Geese follow one of four major flyways (The Pacific, Mississippi, Central, or Atlantic flyways) the ones I see follow the Central or Mississippi Flyways and they are probably returning from the Gulf of Mexico. Skein after skein gathers in farm fields to rest and nibble on scattered corn kernels that litter the fields. Then as if all had reservations to be at a specific location at one particular time, they take off and head for the backwater lakes for more feasting and resting. En masse, they crowd the waters – a wall-to-wall reunion of squeaky honkers. This year counts in our region have been estimated between 500,000 to one million. This congregating area is perhaps one of their last few resting points before making the final push home to their spring mating grounds in Canada’s northern tundra.
Sometimes I can hear the flocks flying over my house at night. If I step out into the dark, I can spot the fine white lines of their V-formations as they trace through the sky. How they see and know where to go is part of their mystique. Like other birds, they have magnetic receptors behind their eyes that help orient them North and South. It’s also believed they use the sun’s position and constellation patterns as maps for their journey. These tools allow birds to navigate established flight paths used for generation after generation over thousands of years.
What I like best about my spring heralds are their massive numbers. Yet despite there being so many, the majority of Midwesterners have never seen or heard of them. That’s because the geese follow the river flyways so closely; people in the heartland, who aren’t near rivers, don’t get to see or enjoy them. Traveling individually or in small flocks, they could be easily missed. But being larger birds traveling in huge groups, they stand out. Of course, many other bird species travel in numbers just as great, perhaps even higher (such as starlings, warblers, and ducks). Still, their smaller sizes make them disappear in the vast skies.
The opportunity to see these large flocks reminds me of historical accounts of Passenger Pigeons. Early explorers and settlers described the massive flocks of Passenger Pigeons as being so great that they could take days or several hours to pass overhead. Sadly, now Passenger Pigeons are extinct – the result of over-hunting, and this is magical phenomenon is one we can never experience.
Snow Geese are actually a problem species for Canada these days, as their populations have risen. The result is that their large numbers have caused incredible destruction to Tundra vegetation. Efforts to cull their population with hunting have proven to be ineffective. With a million eyes in every flock, watching for predators, it is nearly impossible for hunters or natural predators to draw close enough to significantly reduce their numbers.
Despite being a conservation challenge, seeing Snow Geese in large numbers is still a thrill and an opportunity to witness something natural at its peak of survival. But, it’s something we shouldn’t always count on being here. Just as millions of Passenger Pigeons, Carolina Parakeets, or American Bison once pulsed upon this land, we may one day find that Snow Geese too could disappear. Making time to drive to backwaters and flyways during migration season is a magnificent gift you can give yourself, your family, or your friends. It’s a wild goose chase you’ll never forget or regret.
This month under Recommended Reads I review How Do Birds Find Their Way? By Roma Gann — an older, but excellent children’s book offering insights into bird migration. And for a little fun while teaching children about bird migration, check out my Activities section. There you’ll find instructions on how to make a Snow Goose Mobile.