Backlit Against a Heavy Sky

Is there a more iconic figure from nature to represent the state of Maryland than the Canada goose? Resplendent as our state bird, the Baltimore oriole, is, it is seldom heard and rarely seen by the majority of Free Staters. The great blue heron and osprey are contenders, and I would also nominate the canvasback. But let’s stick with the goose.

Once upon a time, there was no surer sign of winter’s coming than a skein of “geese in chevron flight flapping and a-racing on before the snow,” as Joni Mitchell sang. “They’ve got the urge for going, and they’ve got the wings to go.” The sound and sight of geese overhead, back-lit against a heavy sky has always struck a chord within me, a moody, minor chord to be sure.

Perhaps you have mixed feelings about Branta Canadensis. If so, you are not alone. Certainly, once upon a time, the geese did come and go with the seasons. For the most part they still do. But not all of them, not anymore. Within the past few decades, an increasing population of non-migratory, “resident geese” have established themselves in the mid-Atlantic. They might have wings to fly, but they have lost the urge for going.

How and why it happened is not that interesting; suffice it to say that human intervention was involved. The important fact is that geese return to where they are born, so a goose born in Maryland might wander, but not very far. Unlike the resident mute swans, Canada geese don’t seem to pose a serious threat to the environment. They are, however, a major hazard around airports and pose a threat to golf courses and some crops.

At Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary they have devoured the once-abundant stands of wild rice, causing collateral damage to the population of the sora rail (Porzana Carolina), a migratory game bird closely associated with the Patuxent marshes.

It is a challenge sometimes to forget the problems and simply celebrate natural heritage. So I remind myself that the geese are magnificent in flight, and their thrill-inducing sound is full of the spirit of wilderness. Looking east from where I now sit, in the second floor of my house, I can see the sky over the Chesapeake. It is a two-block walk to the shore, where sometimes in the fall and winter I look out to the Bay, diminished but still wild, and have a quiet moment of celebration.

With my back to the town, I see water, sky and a distant shoreline, nine miles away. Sometimes there are rafts of ducks on the water and long skeins of ducks and geese in the sky.