It is early February, and a large flock of snow geese has just taken flight on a cold morning, having spent the night on the tidal waters of the Chesapeake Bay. They know it is time to begin their 3,000-mile migration back to their breeding grounds in the tundra near the Arctic Circle. It is a long, tiring journey and they will need food and rest along the way.
They have been flying all day and as the sun begins to set, they approach a shallow pond along the Lebanon-Lancaster County line in southern Pennsylvania surrounded by 70 acres of marshy farmland. They land on the pond and join the tens of thousands of snow geese that have already gathered at the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.
Middle Creek is a special tract of wildlife habitat that was established in the late 1970s by the state of Pennsylvania and is managed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. It was originally created to support the struggling Canada geese population and to provide waterfowl hunters with a prime hunting area. The strategy worked, and as the Canada geese population began to flourish again, other migrating species began to take note of what Middle Creek had to offer in terms of supporting their long journey back north. Tundra swans, snow geese as well as a large variety of ducks found sanctuary in the pond and surrounding fields. Today, Middle Creek remains a special tract set aside for the protection, propagation, management, preservation, and controlled harvest of wildlife. Because of the large numbers of tundra swan and snow geese, in 2010 it was designated as a Globally Significant Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society.
Migratory birds begin arriving in mid-January, with slowly increasing numbers through mid-February. The best viewing occurs between mid-February through mid-March. The number of tundra swans has exceeded 15,000 in previous years. The number of snow geese far exceeds the number of swans, with numbers approaching 200,000 at times. The population count is highly variable, with daily counts appearing on the Middle Creek live webcam page. They also have a daily estimate of the number of migratory birds.
Most of the waterfowl spend the night on the pond, which offers protection from land-based predators. As the sun rises in the morning, the snow geese travel to nearby fields to feed on corn, millet and other food. Some remain on the water. The diverse nature of the Wildlife Management Area attracts visitors from all over the world. They come to see the migrating birds and all have hopes of witnessing the snow geese lifting in mass. It is a sight like no other, with tens of thousands of white geese filling the air. It looks like a complete white out at times, with a deafening sound akin to locomotives or multiple jet engines. They will lift when predators, such as eagles or hawks, approach their safety zone. Then, as quickly as it begins, they settle back down to a flotilla of silence and beauty. They will usually fly into the fields to feed as dusk approaches. After feeding, they return to the safety of the water.
The snow goose pit stop at Middle Creek usually does not last long, as they will quickly continue their journey back to the tundra. One day the count could be 5,000, and the next day it could exceed 50,000. Since there are several hundred thousand snow geese migrating along the Atlantic Flyway migration route during this time of year, the numbers can grow and shrink rapidly. In order to help plan your visit, it is best to consult the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area website to obtain current waterfowl estimates.
The Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area is open year-round and admission is free. The visitors center is open from February 1 through the day before Thanksgiving, Tuesday through Sunday. For information, call 717-733-1512 or visit the Middle Creek home page. The Area can be extremely crowded during the peak of migration season, so plan accordingly.
Webinar: Snow Goose Migration at Middle Creek
Article, Chesapeake Bay Program: A ‘blizzard’ of snow geese at Pennsylvania's Middle Creek