Waterfowl Migration Update

Waterfowl

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.

04/03/2015: final report for 2015

I was standing on a hill overlooking the lake at daybreak; I was facing south and there was a stiff breeze in my face. There was a flock of twenty tundra swans below me, the only swans I could see. As I watched, the birds got up and circled a couple of times to gain altitude, then headed north. The remaining migrant Canada geese got up behind them and did the same. I saw a few hundred snow geese on the large pond off of Chapel Road, but that's all and they should be leaving soon. There's still some migrating ducks here, but for the most part the 2015 spring waterfowl migration is over.

It was the coldest February/March combination on record locally, and the ice-cover on the lake bore testament to that. I've long held the belief that open, ice-free water is a prerequisite before large numbers of the large waterfowl will show up. That was not the case this year, the birds had no choice but to roost (sleep) on the ice if they were heading north. The photoperiod, the amount of daylight, is what really drives the migration, although it is affected by weather conditions too. As days get longer in the spring birds that migrate get the urge to at least start moving back towards their breeding grounds, sometimes regardless of conditions. It was an interesting migration season, they all are.

PLEASE NOTE: The visitor center will be closed this Sunday, April 5th .

03/31/2015:

Snow geese: 4,000
Tundra swans:  2,000 +

It appears as though more birds left yesterday, and that more were leaving this morning. Things are winding down.

03/27/2015:

Snow geese: 10,000 +/- spread out
Tundra swans:  3,000 +
Canada geese: few remain
Ducks: lots of ducks, many species

Wednesday and Thursday of this week brought favorable conditions for a northward migration at times and birds took advantage, especially Canada geese. With that in mind I'm surprised that there are still this many birds here. Some snow geese might be using alternate roosts within a few miles, including flooded farm fields. I think I've been under-counting tundra swans all season, not being able to get a look at all of them at one time. More open water has brought more ducks. I heard the first "spring peepers" (small frogs) of the season last night, for me that's a sure sign of spring.

03/23/2015:

Snow geese: 16,000 (yes, sixteen thousand)
Tundra swans:  2,000+
Canada geese: dwindling

Wow, what a surprise; they've left, most of them anyway. We still had tens of thousands of snow geese through most of the day yesterday, but it was pretty quiet last evening and again this morning. I was expecting birds to wait until the more favorable winds forecast for Wednesday, but apparently when yesterday's winds died down they decided it was time to go. There are still some tundra swans here, but expect them to head north soon as well.

03/19/2015:

Snow geese: 65,000
Tundra swans:1,800
Canada geese: 1,300

Despite less than ideal conditions for a northward migration birds are pressing in that direction. Canada geese were pouring north this morning on light winds, and there are reports of snow geese in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. There is snow in the forecast for tomorrow, that may put the brakes on things briefly but not for long.

NOTE: The interior road system is now open to public travel. If the birds are not on the lake you may find them feeding in fields along those roads.

03/16/2015:

Snow geese: 110,000
Tundra swans: 2,300
Canada geese: 1,800
Ducks: Some, including mallard, black duck, pintail, widgeon, and ring-necked duck.

The lake is still almost completely ice-covered, the birds are roosting on the ice. Duck numbers should increase along with the amount of open water. Weather forecasts, especially for wind direction, will probably put things in a holding pattern for most of this week.

03/13/2015: afternoon

The 75,000 number from earlier today was the estimate of what was here at dawn. It appeared that more birds were arriving later in the morning, coming in on southerly winds. It's currently impossible to get an accurate estimate because the birds are spread out over a wide area, but it's obvious that numbers have increased since daybreak.

NOTE:If you plan to visit please respect local regulations regarding restricted access areas, they are one of the reasons the birds are here. Thanks.

03/13/2015:

Snow geese: 75,000+/-
Canada geese and Tundra swans: hundreds
Ducks: picking-up

Even with a lack of open water birds are on the move, it's time.

NOTE: The interior road system will remain closed through the weekend. The ice and snow is melting rapidly, but with that the concern becomes flooding, especially with rain on the way. We would expect the majority of the road to be open early next week.

03/12/2015:

Snow geese: 20,000+
Birds were arriving yesterday and again this morning, the migration is underway.

03/11/2015:

Some birds were on the move yesterday, surprising in that there's hardly any open water. Then again, it's the second week of March and some of these birds are no doubt getting anxious to head north. Although still just a comparative handful, some tundra swans, Canada geese, snow geese, and black ducks showed up yesterday. Again, not many, but the migration might be picking up.

03/09/2015:

This week might finally bring a real spring thaw. We're losing snow quickly but it will probably still be awhile until we see much open water on the lake. A small flock of snow geese, about 100 birds, was milling about this morning.

03/02/2015:

No change. We're supposed to get a bit of a thaw this week, but it won't be enough to melt the twelve inches of ice on the lake.

NOTE: The "Wildlife Viewing Drive", alternately known as "the tour road", is closed due to ice and snow. We don't do routine winter maintenance on that road system since the road is closed through the winter anyway. So at this point we're going to have to wait until warmer weather makes the road passable. The same thing happened last year too, we were able to open the road during the second week of March, see how it goes this year.

02/19/2015:

Single-digit low temperatures and more snow are keeping the birds away, with no significant change in sight.

02/03/2015:

The lake has been completely ice-covered since January 7th. That, along with snow-covered fields, is keeping waterfowl elsewhere. Only a few hundred hardy Canada geese remain consistently, toughing it out. This will not change until we experience a substantial thaw. Ice and snow, the lack of it, is what drives bird numbers here. We'll let you know when things start to change.

2014 Migration Summary (04/07/14)

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

Snow geese: 60,000+ on 03/17/14
Tundra swans: 5,000+ on 03/17/14
Canada geese: several thousand on 03/11-12/14

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.


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