A long, long time ago, geese did not migrate south in the autumn, but remained in the land of the north throughout the winter. At last one goose had a dream of the southland, that the winter there was mild. She practiced all summer and made her wings strong so in the autumn she could fly south to the land she had seen in her dream. The vision guided her on her journey and she lived well during the winter. After the first thunder in the spring, she flew back north. It was in this way that geese learned to fly south in the autumn to escape the storms and cold of winter. — Teton-Dakota legend, as told in Paul Johnsgard’s Song of the North Wind
A hush has fallen over the land. Our breathing is the only sound. On this cold snap of an early March dawn, even exhaled air is quickly stilled, flash-frozen into ice crystals. Snowflakes drift across farm fields that stretch across the 6,000-acre Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area on the border of Pennsylvania’s Lebanon and Lancaster counties, located in the southeastern part of the Keystone State.
Suddenly, the world springs to life. More than 100,000 Snow Geese, a blizzard of birds, take flight from Middle Creek’s 360-acre central lake, its waters tinged pink in the light of daybreak. The geese are joined by 4,500 Tundra Swans. They meld into a massive flock, the beating of their wings nearly deafening. Visitors to Willow Point, perhaps the best place at Middle Creek to see the birds, are engulfed in clouds of snow-white wings.
Eventually, the birds will leave for the far north via the Atlantic Flyway. For now, they reside here, a Globally Significant Important Bird Area that was so designated for its large percentage of the world’s population of Snow Geese and Tundra Swans. In summer, they breed in the Arctic. As fall arrives, they head south before the first snowstorm, to settle for the winter on ice-free Mid-Atlantic coastal waters. On the way back in early spring, Middle Creek is a major resting site for the geese and swans.
The date on which Middle Creek’s geese reach peak numbers each year depends on several factors, according to biologists at the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which manages the area. The main lake needs to be mostly ice-free so the birds can find safe haven. The geese also require snow-free fields at and around Middle Creek for feeding. Mid-February to mid-March is when goose numbers are usually highest, but if the lake doesn’t freeze or major snows don’t cover the fields, the birds can arrive as early as January. In late January this year, up to 79,000 Snow Geese and 1,950 Tundra Swans were tallied. (Ducks take refuge at Middle Creek as well; the most common species are Mallard, American Black Duck, and Gadwall.)
In 2022, Middle Creek staffers had counted only 2,400 Snow Geese and 240 Tundra Swans on February 1. The numbers peaked a few weeks later; on February 25, the refuge reported 105,000 Snow Geese and on February 28, 4,500 Tundra Swans. By March 11, most had moved on.
The all-time high count for Snow Geese was in late February 2018, when 200,000 birds were reported. That year’s Tundra Swan tally reached 5,500 birds.
During the short time the geese are at Middle Creek, they feed in agricultural fields planted with corn, wheat, and barley. “Flocks alight upon a meadow or plain and pass over the ground in broken array, cropping to either side as they go,” wrote Arthur Cleveland Bent in his Life Histories of North American Wild Fowl. When the geese aren’t nibbling on grains, the best times to see them are on the lake at sunrise, before they leave for nearby fields, and at sunset as they return to the lake.
Tundra Swans, formerly known as Whistling Swans, also “gather in large flocks,” wrote Bent, “and spend much of their time preening their feathers, keeping up a constant flow of loud notes, as though discussing the period of their departure and the method and direction of their course.”
The swans feed on shallow water vegetation, which they reach with their long necks, sometimes tipping their tails in the air. As aquatic plants dwindle due to the destruction of wetlands, the swans are shifting to dining on land. Like the geese, they forage in farm fields, picking up corn and soybeans left after the autumn harvest and eating crops such as winter wheat, rye, and barley.
Tundra Swans breed in the treeless expanses of northern Alaska and Canada’s Northwest Territories, northeastern Manitoba, northern Ontario, and northwestern Quebec. Swans that nest east of Point Hope, Alaska, winter along the Atlantic coast; others fly south to Pacific shorelines.
By late February to early March, most of Middle Creek’s geese and swans are returning north, with a few stopovers. The passage is not without incident; long stretches of winter still lie ahead. “In stormy weather,” wrote Bent, “they are restless and continually fly from place to place as if hunting for a quiet spot where they may rest in peace till the storm passes.” Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area is a haven that offers them that respite.
Learn more about Middle Creek WMA
Hotspot Near You No. 126: Middle Creek WMA
Middle Creek Snow Goose and Waterfowl Migration Update
Migration Magic: A Story Map, plus tips for visiting Middle Creek
Livestream from Middle Creek’s Willow Point
Continue scrolling for more photos of birds at Middle Creek WMA
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