Waterfowl Migration Update


ADVISORY:  Please note that these numbers are estimates and subject to rapid and dramatic change.
These updates are submitted by Jim Binder, Middle Creek manager.


This will be the last posting of this migration season, the birds that were still lingering here last week have moved on.  It was an odd year, but I find myself saying that every year.  After a long and hard winter the thaw arrived late, and so did the birds.  We saw a similar situation some years ago, when snow geese didn’t arrive in numbers until March 9th, this year it was March 10th.  Both years the birds weren’t here long, a couple of weeks, before they headed north.  That earlier year the tundra swans flew over us from the south, not stopping after they left the Chesapeake Bay, in a rush to get north.  This year we had a good swan year (5,000) and we surprisingly over-wintered about 1,000.  Snow geese are increasingly spending time in the Lehigh Valley; over the past several years that area has held as many, if not more, snow geese than we had here.  Since that trend started we haven’t eclipsed 80,000 snow geese in a year, whereas we used to expect 150,000.  That’s OK, it’s good to have these birds spread out, it lessens impacts on agriculture.  We’ll resume migration updates perhaps next February, or whenever birds start arriving.


Snow geese:  a few hundred
Tundra swans:  100

The south winds of yesterday pretty much emptied this place

Snow geese:  2,500+
Tundra swans:  2,400

Canada geese were heading north on Tuesday morning, it was odd to see and hear them doing so while it was snowing, but we didn’t get much snow out of that system.  Considering the great south winds of Thursday afternoon I’m surprised that there are even this many birds here this morning.  Sometimes as birds are leaving here they are replaced by new birds from the south.  South winds are supposed to continue today, it appeared that some swans were leaving early this morning.  Things are definitely winding down locally, these birds want and need to go north.

Snow geese:  6,000?
Tundra swans:  3,500 +/-
Canada geese:  a few thousand

For a period of Saturday morning the winds were blowing from the south to the north.  Lots of waterfowl were on the move, many birds left, getting out ahead of an approaching cold front.  Snow goose numbers have dropped by 90%, tundra swan and Canada goose numbers have also dropped but not as dramatically.  Predicted north winds should keep these birds here through Monday, but south winds are predicted for Tuesday and we might see another large movement of waterfowl ahead of what may be a coastal storm system.  Whether more birds will arrive from the south or if birds may get pushed back south by winter weather remains to be seen.  We do need to look at where we are on the calendar, waterfowl instinctively wants to be heading north, and it will take extreme weather conditions to keep them from doing that.

No dramatic change apparent this morning.

Big news:  the Vernal Equinox will occur at 12:57 PM today, the offical arrival of spring.

Snow geese:  60,000+
Tundra swans:  5,000+

Snow goose numbers may have swelled a bit since the last report but not by much.  We’re getting reports that snow geese are also using some area quarries as alternate roosts.  I think I’ve been low on my swan estimates, there’s a lot of them here.  I didn’t see many Canada geese this morning, don’t know where they got to for sure, but a lot of them were going north last week.  Some southerly winds are forecast for Wednesday and again on Saturday, that might prompt some migratory movements.  past weekend we may have had as many human visitors as we did birds, at least it seemed that way.  The snow finally melted off our interior road system, most of it was opened to the public on Saturday morning, and it will remain open unless we get another significant snowfall.

No significant change apparent this morning.  There may have been more snow geese in the area during the day yesterday, but only the same number spent the night here.  Canada geese were streaming north yesterday morning, getting out ahead of the storm system.  Strong north winds will put the brakes on the migration today, but south winds are predicted for tomorrow and birds should be on the move again.  We are getting reports of birds to our north, this might be a condensed migration.

Snow geese:  60,000
Tundra swans:  4,800
Canada geese:  several thousand

Snow geese:  40,000+
Tundra swans:  2,000+
Canada geese:  several thousand

It’s on.

Waterfowl will often take advantage of favorable winds, waiting for a tailwind before making a long flight.  Early yesterday the wind was coming from the south, and with it came lots of birds.  I wasn’t surprised that some birds showed up yesterday, but I was surprised by the numbers.  There still is not much open water available to them so many of the birds are ice-roosting, meaning they spend the night on the ice.

Snow geese:  8,000+
Tundra swans:  2,000+

Things might be starting to break loose, numbers are up a bit.  It was hard to discern one white bird from another, massed together on a white background at a distance this morning, but it was evident that we picked up some more birds lately.  Red-winged blackbirds were singing this morning, a sure sign of spring.

Snow geese:  3,000?
Swans:  1,000
Canada geese:  not many

No significant change upwards as of this morning.  Weather forecasts are calling for more seasonable temperatures, but it’s going to take awhile to thaw this place out, there’s 16” of ice on the lake.

The interior road system remains closed, it’s impassable, we’ll have to wait for that to melt off as well.

No change.

Temperatures were in the single digits here this morning, and the weather forecast indicates the potential for another significant snowfall Sunday into Monday.  So, all in all, I would not expect there to be a significant change in bird numbers any time soon, at least so far as numbers going up.  Remember, snow and ice (or the lack of it) is what drives the migration.  Think Spring!

Snow geese:  5,000+
Tundra swans:  1,000+
Canda geese: a few hundred

The brief thaw over the weekend has our snow goose numbers back to the five thousand or so we had earlier; but that is still the high count for the year so far.  Our local wildlife biologist, Jack Gilbert, counted ten different species of ducks from Willow Point last Friday.  He reported though that the open water they were on is quite a distance from Willow Point, so he recommends good optics, especially a spotting scope.

Snow geese:  less than 1,000
Tundra swans:  1,000
Canada geese:  only a few hundred here this morning.

We’ve had three additional snowfalls since the previous report, numbers have dwindled further.  We’re enjoying a brief warm-up now, but it will take an extended thaw to rid the lake of ice and the ground of snow.  Until that happens bird numbers will probably not increase dramatically.  The lake is almost entirely ice-covered, what little open water remains is off of Willow Point. 

NOTE: the interior road system at Middle Creek is normally scheduled to open to the public on March 1st.  Due to snow and ice, the road may not open until conditions improve.

Snow geese: 5,000
Tundra swans: 1,000
Canada geese: several thousand, in and out
Ducks: very few

This is the first report of the season because there hasn't been much to report so far. We're having a real winter for a change and the ice and snow are keeping the birds elsewhere. Numbers of Canada and snow geese have fluctuated along with the amount of ice cover, but these tundra swans have surprisingly been here all winter. Given the conditions I'm surprised that there's this many birds here, but don't expect more until we get a substantial thaw.

2013 Migration Summary (04/05/13)

Peak numbers of the large waterfowl, by species and the date the high-count was recorded:

Snow geese:  55,000 on 02/28/13
Tundra swans:  3,300 on 02/12/13
Canada geese:  4,200 on 01/07/13

Remember, these are the high counts on a given day that a survey was done; there may have been more birds here at a given time but they were not tallied.  Numbers of snow geese were down this year as compared to what we've been seeing in the recent past.  Remember too though, that the number of these birds we see here are generally not indicative of how the population is trending, they are simply a reflection of how many birds spent time here in any year.  Every year is a little different, the amount of ice and snow present and the timing of the spring thaw drives the numbers we may get here.  It is obvious though that the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania has been holding more snow geese over the past few years, we may have seen a shift in their habits.  The bird's departure in the spring has been earlier the past two years as it was in the past as well.  Whereas we used to figure that we would peak from mid-February to mid-March, the last two years most of the birds had moved on by early March.  We'll see what next winter and spring might hold.

MIGRATION BACKGROUND: The period that annually attracts the most birds, and visitors, remains late winter. During this timeframe, large numbers of migrating waterfowl normally appear. In recent years, more than 100,000 snow geese, 10,00 tundra swans, 10,000 Canada geese, and a wide variety of ducks have stopped at Middle Creek while pushing north to their breeding grounds. It's also a great place to see northern harriers, or "marsh hawks," nesting and immature bald eagles, and more common creatures such as white-tailed deer and red-tailed hawks.

There are many variables that determine the arrival of migrating waterfowl. The most significant is icing. When the ice on the main impoundment thaws to create areas of open water, the birds begin to arrive. Snow cover on the surrounding agricultural fields also influences the arrival waterfowl because it can limit access to the waste grains these birds depend on for food. Therefore, areas of open water and limited or no snow cover on adjacent fields strongly influence Middle Creek's drawing and holding power for migrants.

Many of the migrants that come to Middle Creek winter south of Pennsylvania and usually begin to push north in conjunction with spring thaw. During extreme winters with a late thaw, however, there's always a chance waterfowl will fly over Middle Creek, or stop only briefly. Timing is critical for migration and nesting.

Exactly when birds arrive can be difficult to predict. Generally, the birds, when conditions permit, begin to arrive in late February or early March. For those planning a trip to Middle Creek, the first weekend in March would be a good time to visit. A map of the area is available at the Visitors Center, as are the latest updates and bird sightings. Make sure to bring along binoculars, and field guide to help identify some of the birds you'll see. Warm clothes also an important consideration if you plan to drive with your windows open. A camera also is usually worth taking, because sometimes tremendous photo opportunities arise at Middle Creek. To take a closer look at what awaits you at Middle Creek visit the Snow Goose Photo Album.

After the stopping by the Center, visitors follow the self-guided tour to Stop #1, located at the lower end of the lake. This is normally an excellent site to view tundra swans. Another suggestion would be to hike to Willow Point. At dusk or dawn, this provides the best vantage for snow geese. To fully appreciate Middle Creek, a drive through the interior on the Tour Road shouldn't be missed. Weather and driving conditions permitting, the Tour Road will open March 1. A significant portion of the interior remains Propagation Area where entry is prohibited. It is because of the Propagation Area that waterfowl are attracted to Middle Creek. Within these areas, the habitat and lack of human disturbance remain the primary reason why Middle Creek has become such a vital stop to migrating waterfowl.

Considering the numbers of birds we were seeing through the day yesterday, today's numbers seem low.  All I can do is report the numbers I see in the morning of a given day.  Early morning (daybreak) is usually the best time to get estimates, as any birds in the area should spend the night on the lake.  However, with a bright full moon last night some birds may have stayed out overnight.

Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Ave, Harrisburg Pennsylvania 17110-9797