Chesapeake Outdoors
The Season's First Snow Storm
By C.D. Dollar

They came from miles and miles away, long ribbons of flowing white specks tied together so that, from the distance, they looked like strings of popcorn. Huge numbers of snow geese descended upon the five-acre farm pond in Talbot County, hovering locust-like, waiting for clearance to land. All the while, they cajoled and expressed their nervous energy through loud, nasal la-unks and whouks.

Underneath the snows, flocks of 10 to 15 tundra swans flew beneath radar, then pitched their wings and landed effortlessly and without hesitation, very unlike the geese that fluttered and circled in maddening indecision.

This was the first major flight of snow geese I had seen this season. Snows migrate from the Arctic Circle to the marshes and farm fields of the Delmarva Peninsula by the tens of thousands. The number of birds congregated on this pond numbered less than 3,000, but it was still impressive.

Snow geese have wreaked havoc on the marshes on the Eastern Shore, devouring cordgrass and cattails by pulling them up from their roots. Increasingly, snows now flock to the agricultural uplands on the Shore, where they have developed an appetite for grasses and grains. This change coupled with good breeding success in the 1990s to bring many snow geese to Chesapeake Country. In response, bag limits have increased, as has discussion on whether hunters might use electronic calling to control the population.

But mature snow geese are a wary bunch, often hesitant to land and suspicious of decoys. It is also difficult to peg down their habitats because they often have no rhyme or reason to their daily routines.

Looming as large as an armada of space shuttles, squadrons of tundra swans (sometimes called whistling swans) buzzed our heads, the power of their wing beats resonating in my ears. A large bird, the tundra is similar to the European invader, the mute, and is distinguished from this elegant bully (mutes are much more aggressive) by its relatively straight neck and black bill. The smaller tundra swan is more vocal than the mute swan, emitting a high-toned who-who-who as it flies by.

We got a good look at this massive airdrop of both snow geese and tundra swans after our day afield.

In the afternoon, we had staked out a small pothole where we hoped some of the mallards and black ducks would choose to land. A classic winter sky - hues of grays and streaks of silver - was pushing out the last impressions of day. On the long way back to the trucks, we looped around the wheat field to avoid spooking the geese on the pond roosting for the night, which gave the young Chesapeakes Huck (mine) and Cobb (Kevin Colbeck's) opportunity to roll in the mud. It also gave me opportunity to appreciate the snow goose from a different perspective, as admirer rather than adversary.

For the last several seasons, the snows have confounded us despite our best efforts to fool them, an admirable trait in any competitor. There have been days where we have bested them, but by and large they have outsmarted or at least managed to elude us.

The actual number of days we have spent watching the snow geese feed, land and fly is now obscured in my memory. Now, it seems, I measure these excursions not so much in time or tangible success but as glimpses into the magic of flight and the geese's instinct to survive.

| Issue 51 |

Volume VII Number 51
December 23-29, 1999
New Bay Times

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