by Joan Smedinghoff
February 25, 2016
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.