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.


First Report of 2016: Lots of snow and ice are keeping things pretty quiet, not many birds here. Until conditions change dramatically it will probably remain this way.  It is also still early on the calendar for birds to be on the move.

Canda geese: several hundred
Tundra swans: several hundred
Snow geese: none

2015 Migration Summary

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

Snow geese: 110,000 on 03/15/15
Tundra swans: 3,000+ on 03/27/15
Canada geese:1,800 on 03/16-12/15

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. As days get longer in the spring birds that migrate get the urge to start moving back towards their breeding grounds, sometimes regardless of conditions. It was an interesting migration season, they all are.

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