Greater Snow Geese
Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania
hat could be more exhilarating for a lover of birds than the visual treat of tens of thousands of Snow Geese launching from their over-night roost during the early dawn hours in an exploding massive cloud of white and painted with a warm glow from the rising sun! And it’s not only a spectacle of sight, but sound as well, which at close range can be quite intense to the human ear. But it’s an experience of an audible magnitude that one will remember and cherish for the rest of their lives.
This “Blast-off” as many of us call it, can be the highlight of the day and an overwhelming experience for the avid waterfowl enthusiast. It only requires a journey to your favorite wildlife refuge or other location where these birds are present during the wee hours of the morning, and then arriving at or before nautical twilight, finding the birds, setting up and then patiently waiting for the event… Let’s not forget the stop en-route at your favorite local donut shop for coffee and those delectable sugary treats that so many of us simply cannot do with out.
For the waterfowl photographer, this extravaganza can often take place before he or she has suitable light to accomplish their craft. But today’s modern digital DSLR’s are capable of capturing images in very low light so opportunities are on the increase. However, all is not lost “missing the shot” as just experiencing the event itself is worth the trip, even with the camera sitting idle on the seat of your vehicle.
Weather can play a major role in the morning departure of these birds to their chosen feeding grounds as well as the distance they have to travel. I have seen them wait until well after sunrise to lift-off on numerous occasions, especially on foggy mornings.
Exodus with a “splash” of color….
The rising sun adds a warm reddish glow to this somewhat abstract composition of thousands of Greater Snow Geese “blasting off” from the Raymond Pool at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware.
Growing up along the Louisiana and upper Texas Coast, the first hint of a November chill would bring anticipation of the arrival of thousands of Lesser Snow Geese, White-fronted Geese (Speckle-bellies) and wintering ducks to the marshes and coastal prairies. During my younger years my excitement was more from a hunting perspective but as I grew older the visual enjoyment alone became equally exciting or perhaps even more so. I have long since put down the gun for the camera instead and enjoy observing and photographing life more than taking it for whatever the reason.
Waterfowl hunting had been a tradition among my family and friends; more so than deer or any other game. Hunting the Wild Turkey was a close second as far as a dedication and source of enjoyment, and I still enjoy that challenge to this day, although “Old Tom” will normally outsmart me on most occasions.
Just being out in the marsh long before sunrise, mucking around setting up decoys and then retiring to your blind or boat, sipping coffee and waiting for the first sound of “whistling wings” is an experience everyone should experience, even the non-hunting folks.
“Grey Skies – White Cloud”
A mid-morning “blast-off” near Willow Point at the Middle Creek Wildlife
Management Area in Lancaster County Pennsylvania.
Relocating to the Mid-Atlantic region to work for the National Geographic Society had presented numerous opportunities for new birding and wildlife adventures within a variety of habitats I had longed to explore for prolonged periods of time instead of just a “tourist glance” during some of my previous “quick” visits. As far as waterfowl and coastal birds, my move would be an introduction to new species I had desired to see in “real life” and not just photographs on the pages of reference materials. I was also pleased to find many of the species I consider “old friends” from the Gulf Coast, but dressed in brilliant breeding plumage’s instead of the dull colors of their winter attire we so commonly see in Texas and Louisiana and their wintering grounds.
Remembering the huge flocks of Lesser Snow Geese from the Texas coastal prairies, like the “Katy Prairie” west of Houston sparked an interest in what I could find within the region of my new home here in the Mid-Atlantic States. I knew the Greater Snow Goose was a huge draw for the waterfowl hunter as well as the waterfowl photographer and birding enthusiasts. So I began my exploration for this prolific species along the eastern shores of Maryland and Delaware east of the Chesapeake Bay and along the coastal reaches of the Delaware Bay.
A young Greater Snow Goose stands alongside the Wildlife Drive
at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware.
The coloration is prior to gaining the pure whites of the adult.
Agricultural areas are a big attraction for Snow Geese with the plentiful food sources of their favor and the Mid-Atlantic coastal region, like the Texas and Louisiana coastal prairies support farming as a major industry. The crop yield is a bit different with rice and grasses being the major draw in Texas and Louisiana while winter wheat and other various and numerous grains are prevalent within the Mid-Atlantic coastal areas.
Maryland and Delaware both host major National Wildlife Refuges that provide safe places for resting and roosting wintering geese, however Delaware seems to lead the two in sheer populations. Bombay Hook and Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuges are the stars of Delaware and both offer the waterfowl lover and photographer great opportunities to observe and photograph these birds at rest as well as the popular early morning “blast-off” from the roost on many occasions.
“Whats for Dinner?”
An adult pair of Greater Snow Geese probe the corn stubble for left-over morsels
near the Visitors Center at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
in Dorchester County, Maryland
Bombay Hook NWR seems to have lost the draw of many of the roosting birds since a political lawsuit took the on-site farming away and the geese lost a safe place to feed and graze before retiring for the night. The loss of the farming is a whole other story that I won’t go in to other than to say a few misguided humans won the battle and the majority of the wildlife lost!! You can still find roosting birds on the Raymond and Shearness Pools but not in the huge numbers as years past it seems.
“Lift-Off from 13 Curves”
A huge flock of Greater Snows I found along 13 Curves Road
near the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge take to the sky in a flurry.
Maryland’s Dorchester County is home to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and its adjoining neighbor the Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area which provide safe resting and roosting locations for some of Maryland’s Snow Goose populations. However for good viewing, the later winter months are the best at the Blackwater refuge.
Other good areas around Maryland for observing Snow Geese include the portion of the state south of the city of Salisbury and also eastward to the towns of Berlin and Ocean City; and then southward to Assateague Island. The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge just across the border in Virginia is a Snow Goose “Hot-Spot”..
“Monkey See – Monkey Do”
The flock at the Middle Creek WMA take to the air during a Bald Eagle fly over!
When one bird senses danger, the others will follow the lead to safety.
The state of Pennsylvania is another farming mecca with the eastern portion of the state, and especially the counties of Lancaster and Lebanon which lie east of the Susquehanna River, hosting feeding and resting places for thousands of Greater Snow Geese and many other waterfowl species during their migratory travels. Here plentiful field corn silage spills and leftovers are the main attraction with more winter wheat and various grasses as an added enticement.
An area along the borders of these two counties was set aside to host the large Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area and lake which give these travelers a safe place to rest and roost for their journey. Like the Blackwater refuge in Maryland, Middle Creek is the most productive for the larger numbers of snow geese during the late winter and early spring.
Seemingly “well fed”, Mom and Pop pose for me and a family portrait at the Middle Creek WMA.
I did forget to ask them for their address so I could mail them a picture.
“Fading Colors forWhite Arrivals”
The last of the fall colors welcome a flock of Greater Snow Geese
to the Shearness Pool at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge.
Many of my friends and peers who share the love of Avian photography, and especially the ones who are dedicated to waterfowl have this “obsession” with photographing “birds in flight” or BIF as they call it.
As a photographer who spends most of his time with the little song birds hopping from branch to branch in a bush or tree, photographing birds in flight is not one of my stronger points. However, I do enjoy taking the challenge once every “Blue Moon” or so!
I will dedicate these remaining images to “their obsession” and my sometimes feeble attempts at it to pay my respect and homage to their dedication and skills.
“A Perigee Departure”
One of my favorite images from the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge is
this sunrise departure of Greater Snow Geese during the setting of a Perigee Moon.
As with the above “sunrise image”, sunsets (below) can add their own splendor by warming colors to your subjects backgrounds and the evening sky. We photographers call this “sweet light” and for those who prefer to rise later or depart early truly miss out. “Bankers Hours” are not for the dedicated photographer of nature.
“Gear Down and Locked”
The aviation term applies here as four Greater Snow Geese have their feet extended
and wings cupped like the flaps on a jet-liner slowing their decent while on a sunset
approach to a field at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge.
Using the low sun at about 3:30 PM on a chilly January day, I captured the image of
these seven birds on their final approach to a pond at the base of the Woodland Beach WMA
observation tower from which I was shooting. The geese were approaching straight towards me.
Several years back on a gray, cold and blustery day in March, I and my beloved 90-year-old friend Elmer Schweitzer joined friends Steve Keller and Eric Gerber for an outing to photograph the Snow Geese up close and personal from the auto-tour loop at the Middle Creek WMA in Lancaster/Lebanon Counties Pennsylvania.
Eric was kind enough to lend me an older Canon 600mm lens for some “Bird In Flight” photography of individual birds. Again, this is not my strong point as far as photography is concerned but I had a blast and managed some half-way decent images. The guys set up on tripods, but I had to improvise and use a bean bag off of the passenger door frame of my vehicle.
Still, “all in all”, things fell in place, and even with the older relic lens and the lack of image stabilization that these new shooters consider a “must have” I managed. I guess it’s my “old schooling” and after all I have been shooting for over 40 years and long before IS was a thought in some technicians mind..
Here are just a sampling of the approach and landing sequence results below……..
“Smooth and Steady”
Who could ask for a nicer composition? This adult Greater Snow goose had just departed
from the lake so take notice to the water droplets from his feet.
“Shallow Bank – Eyes Forward”
Just a nice shallow turn before the final to landing…
“The Three Amigos”
Perhaps Mom with two of her offspring making their approach to the field below.
“A Slight Adjustment”
Two youngsters on a final approach as the following bird makes a slight turn to the right
to land beside and with the leading goose..
A “Blue Phase” Snow goose picks a spot for his touchdown in the flock below.
He will stand out like a “sore thumb” in the field of white..
“Feathers For Flight”
As a pilot I am amazed as to how the feathers of the wings and tail of these birds closely
resemble and act like the control surfaces of an aircraft. Looking at the upper portions
of the wings on this Snow, you can see the deep curvature of the leading edge
like the “slats” or flaps on a jetliner. I would imagine this is how we humans
developed the principles of flight we use today!
“Approaching the Landing Zone”
An Adult Greater Snow goose prepares for his touchdown…
“Picking a Spot In a Field of White”
Just before touch-down, this Greater Snow maneuvers for an open area to land…
“Student Pilot – Close Quarters”
A juvenile Snow goose jockey’s for a tight landing spot while the adults watch…
In conclusion, I hope everyone has the opportunity to enjoy these birds as much as I have. I look forward to this season and many more in the future for chances to observe and photograph these amazing birds along with so many others along our coastal prairies and marshes whether it be the Mid-Atlantic or Gulf coasts.
“The Over The Hill Gang”
at the Middle Creek WMA
(from left to right) Steve Keller, from Reading Pennsylvania;
along with my “young” and chipper 90 year old friend Elmer Schweitzer
and yours truly with camera and lens by Canon, Tripod by Chevrolet and my
modern gimbal head by Wildlife Imaging constructed of fabric and “beans”…
Photo taken by good friend Eric Gerber
You truly are an amazing photographer! What beautiful shots.. These should be in a wildlife magazine!
Thank you so very much Lara!
Thankyou all so much Bill, Leilani and Harold for the comments!
Another slap (pat) on the back Jim, Excellent well done
Jim, as always a delightful visual encounter and learning experience….I really like your sunrise moon photo with a flock of geese flying high. Thanks for all the travels you share….that most don’t get to do.
Excellent article and images