Canada geese fly along the Mattaponi River in Walkerton, Virginia. The characteristic honking and “V”-shaped flying pattern of Canada geese are distinctive sounds and sights of autumn in the Chesapeake region.
As part of the Atlantic Flyway—one of the major bird migration routes in the United States—the Chesapeake Bay is an important stopover for migrating geese. But these migratory birds are not the only type of Canada geese found in the area. While many flocks leave the area in early spring to return to their northern breeding grounds, countless others remain year-round. “Resident” geese, as they’re known, may appear nearly identical to their migratory relatives, but they actually make up a distinct population.
Most resident geese originated from flocks that were brought to the Chesapeake region in the early 1900s, through government stocking programs and for use as live decoys. These non-migratory geese are typically larger, begin breeding at a younger age and produce more eggs than their migratory counterparts. And because they tend to live in urban and suburban areas—like lawns, parks and golf courses—resident geese are less likely to be exposed to hunting, meaning they live longer as well.
In the Bay region and beyond, populations of resident Canada geese have grown exponentially since the mid-20th century, bringing with them a variety of environmental problems: from threatening the health of waterways and humans with their droppings to overgrazing on aquatic vegetation that might otherwise sustain migratory birds on their long journeys. Both resident and migratory Canada geese are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but experts have worked to identify ways to reduce the damage caused by resident geese. The National Park Service, for example, sought public comments last year on its plan to use border collies to chase away Canada geese on the National Mall.
Image by Will Parson
It’s a cold morning in Chestertown, Maryland—just above freezing. Greg Cole is waiting outside of his silver pickup truck, covered head to toe in camouflage, his bright white beard the only solid color on him. Today is Groundhog Day, but Cole’s not looking for rodents’ shadows; he’s keeping his eyes on the sky looking for an entirely different critter: the Canada goose. Cole is a hunting guide, and today is the second-to-last day of the migratory goose hunting season.
The term “migratory” is key, because Canada geese fall into one of two categories: resident and migratory. Resident geese live permanently in populated areas. They hang around golf courses and other open areas, and they’re considered a nuisance by many because they overgraze areas and generate a lot of waste. Migratory geese look similar to their homebody cousins but lead very different lives: they breed up north in Quebec, migrate to the Bay region in early autumn, stay throughout the winter and return to their breeding grounds in the spring.
Cole’s hopeful for a good hunt today. The waterfowl hunting hasn’t been good this year, he says, “mainly because of the weather.” The warm weather kept the geese from migrating south until later in the season. “This lake,” he says, gesturing to a slow-moving arm of the Chester River about a quarter of a mile away, “I’ve seen it hold as many as 10,000 geese, and this year, there’s probably [been] an average of about 500 geese all through the season.”
Despite this year’s low turnout, the number of breeding pairs has been healthy for the past few years—but that hasn’t always been the case. In the late 1980s, the population of migratory Canada geese in the Atlantic Flyway began to drop dramatically. A mixture of bad weather and overharvesting led to a serious decline in the migratory goose population, so much so that in 1995, Maryland instituted a moratorium on hunting them.
Cole has been a hunting guide almost continuously since 1980 and remembers when the moratorium was first instated. “It was tough to take, when they said we were going to close it down,” he says. “We didn’t know if it was going to be shut down for two years or ten.” The moratorium was set in two-year increments and ultimately lasted six years.
Now Cole guides at a private hunt club of about 30 on Chino Farms, a part of the Grasslands Partnership, which was placed under conservation easement in 2001. At over 5,000 acres, it’s the largest conservation easement in Maryland’s history. It contains a 90-acre waterfowl sanctuary, three miles of shoreline along the Chester River and 600 acres of Delmarva bay, making it a great habitat for rare and endangered plants, Delmarva fox squirrels and other woodland critters. In 2006, the land was designated as an Important Bird Area by Maryland-DC Audubon.
Cole leads us to a nearby field where three club members will be hunting today. His two-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever, Geena, tags along, anticipating the chance to run our and retrieve birds. There is a group of geese grazing in the field, but as we approach, none of them fly away—in fact, they don’t move at all. These are the decoys used to attract the geese, and this group of about 60 taxidermied Canada geese is pretty convincing. Each is in a different position: some are standing tall starting off in different directions, others are posed to look like they are pecking at the ground.
As we wait, geese begin to fly by; some are in large groups with 20 or 30 geese, while others are smaller with just two or three. Alternating between short blips and longer whines, Cole uses the call, a sort of goose-whistle, hanging around his neck to “speak” their language and convince the geese to fly down towards the decoys “grazing” in the field in front of us.
A half hour passes and still no geese get close. “You know it’s a slow day when the dog goes to sleep,” Cole says, laughing as he looks down at Geena who is lying on the bench, no longer exuding the excitement and anticipation she had been earlier in the day.
Despite today’s silence and this season’s luck, Cole isn’t pessimistic about the future of goose hunting. “The biggest problem this year has been the weather—without a doubt. And I don’t think they had a real good hatch.” In terms of the moratorium, while it shook up hunting on the Eastern Shore, Cole maintains, “It definitely was a success story.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images and captions by Will Parson
Text by Joan Smedinghoff
Summer may be over, but there are still a number of opportunities to get outside and enjoy the splendor of the outdoors. In autumn and winter, millions of migratory birds visit the Chesapeake Bay region as they follow the Atlantic Flyway during their seasonal flights.
The Chesapeake, which sits along the Atlantic Flyway, has always been a favored winter residence and stopover for many waterfowl – ducks, geese and swans – on their way to and from their northern breeding grounds. The wetlands, fields, shallows and open waters of the Bay offer a fertile environment for waterfowl to feed and rest.
There are countless great places in the Chesapeake Bay watershed – which stretches from upstate New York to southern Virginia – to catch a glimpse of these beautiful birds on a fall or winter day. From national wildlife refuges (NWR) to state parks and wildlife management areas, the options are plentiful no matter where you live.
We’ve compiled a list of some of the top places to spend a day enjoying the beautiful waterfowl that call the Chesapeake region their winter home.
Located about an hour northwest of Salisbury, Blackwater NWR is one of the premier spots in the Bay region to see wintering waterfowl. Each autumn, thousands of Canada geese flock to the 27,000-acre refuge during their annual migration. Tundra swans, snow geese and a variety of ducks are also abundant at Blackwater.
The refuge is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. There is an entry fee of $3 per vehicle, $1 per pedestrian or bicyclist (those under 16 are free).
Elk Neck State Park is situated on the Susquehanna Flats, a unique portion of the Bay that is less than 5 feet deep. In the past, hundreds of thousands of waterfowl used to migrate to this area in massive quantities. While there are fewer birds there these days, the park is still a great spot to watch dabblers like teal and mallards as they feed in the shallow waters of the Flats.
The park is open year-round and cabins are available for rental. On weekdays, the park charges an entry fee of $3 per vehicle; on weekends and holidays, that changes to $3 per person. Out of state residents will have to add $1 to these fees.
With 2,800 acres of land maintained specifically to attract waterfowl, this 30-mile-long island is a sure bet for bird-watching. Wander along inlets and beaches to see thousands of ducks, geese and swans, possibly even close enough to appreciate the intricate differences of each species.
The island is open from sunrise to sunset every day of the year with no entry fees.
The 2,285-acre refuge is home to approximately 243 species of birds. Waterfowl include pintails, goldeneyes, ruddy ducks, oldsquaw, canvasbacks and buffleheads. Also found in the area is the tundra swan, which can be seen in groups of as many as one thousand.
The refuge is open from 7:30 a.m. until one half hour after sunset with no entry fees.
At the end of the last Ice Age, as the last glacier retreated, two masses of ice were left behind and eventually melted, creating the Chenango and Lily lakes in New York. During the migration seasons, birdwatchers can find ducks as well as herons and kingfishers by the lakes. Along the trails, woodpeckers, nut hatches, warblers and thrushes abound.
The park is open year-round for day use, and campsites are available May through October.
Susquehannock State Park offers several river overlooks, which give visitors a unique panoramic view of the lower Susquehanna River. With such a major stop on the Atlantic Flyway nearby, the park is a haven for migratory birds on their journeys. Visitors will inevitably see large numbers of Canada geese, mallards, lesser scaup and several other species. The park also has the world’s first bald eagle sanctuary, where two nesting bald eagles have lived for many years. Several other eagles have nested on the island in recent years as well. The eagle sanctuary can be viewed through binoculars or the on-site optical viewer.
Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area is mostly an oak-hickory forest covering 3,500 acres. While this portion of the Bay watershed is a bit too far west to draw many migratory waterfowl from the Atlantic Flyway, the 205-acre lake does attract limited numbers of ducks and geese. Mallards, Canada geese, wood ducks and several species of diving ducks can been seen on the lake.
The Nanticoke Wildlife Area contains 4,415 acres of forests, fields and wetlands bordering the Nanticoke River. Along the river, visitors will be treated to the brilliant fall plumage of the drake wood duck and also be able to see American widgeon, gadwall and American black ducks. A multitude of herons, grebes, songbirds and egrets also inhabit Nanticoke Wildlife Area.
For more information, please contact the Delaware Division of Fish & Wildlife at (302) 539-3160.
Rappahannock River Valley NWR is the newest of four refuges that comprise the Eastern Virginia Rivers National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Established in 1996, the refuge protects 20,000 acres of wetlands and uplands along the river and its major tributaries. The vast stretches of wetlands and river frontage provide habitat for a multitude of species of waterfowl, including black ducks, widgeons, greater scaup, hooded mergansers, canvasbacks and ring-necked ducks.
This 146-acre preserve on a peninsula in the Chesapeake Bay has three major natural habits: a tidal salt marsh, a maritime forest and a sandy beach. There is a boardwalk and observation deck over the salt marsh that offers great views of the habitat and wildlife, as well as a roadside between the forest and the marsh where you have a great opportunity to view waterfowl during spring and fall migrations. Shorebirds take their places in the tidal lagoons, while land birds roam the forested areas. Neo-tropical songbirds and other migratory birds are frequently seen here as they travel along the Atlantic Flyway.
The preserve is open daily from dawn ‘til dusk.
This salt marsh habitat separates the eastern side of Winter Harbor from the Chesapeake Bay. The habitat is constantly changing due to wind and water that move the sand on the narrow beach, but this doesn’t change how many species of birds and waterfowl are found. Bethel Beach boasts more than 185 species of birds, including 25 species of shorebirds.
Just a few miles from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, Kiptopeke State Park is a 500-acre refuge for viewing fall migrations. The park includes a songbird banding station so that visitors of the park can view up-close songbirds like warblers and ovenbirds. There’s also a hawk-trapping station with species including sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawk, peregrine falcons and merlin. The nearby Eastern Shore of Virginia Wildlife Refuge has a migration display that’s also worth checking out.
The park is open year-round with a $3 entry fee Monday through Friday and $4 on weekends and holidays.
This 500-acre preserve, with its wooded trails and shoreline along the Chesapeake Bay, is very appealing to migrating and wintering birds. Beginning in October, wintering waterfowl such as eiders, scoters and open-water ducks come along. The preserve is open to walkers and bikers.
For a different experience, you can observe waterfowl from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel’s four man-made islands. The man-made habitats are located in open waters, providing an inviting resting point for many migrating birds. Frequent avian visitors include northern gannet, pelican, brant, king eider, harlequin duck, red-breasted merganser, peregrine falcon, American oystercatcher, little gull and black-tailed gull.
For another list of great waterfowl-related places to visit around the Bay, check out the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network's compilation of waterfowling driving tours.