Taking off in a cloud, Snow Geese create a winter wonderland

by Anders Gyllenhaal
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KNOTTS ISLAND, N.C. — Suddenly the steady honking and squawking from this gaggle of Snow Geese shifts to a higher pitch, and one of nature’s great performances begins.

First just a few, then dozens, and finally hundreds of the bright white birds begin to rise up from a brackish pond on Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge in Northeastern North Carolina. Within seconds, every square inch of air is filled with flapping, wailing geese. The mass moves up, veers right and then left as if a conductor is guiding the cloud of snowy white.

Here’s a video of the scene:

The movement is mesmerizing, a gift for patient observers along the mid-Atlantic coast as well as the Midwest this time of year. Each gigantic cloud puts an exclamation point on an unusual story: At a time when most bird species are in decline, populations of Snow Geese are booming.

White Pelicans

They’re not hard to find — spread across marshes and fields from coastal New Jersey to the Carolinas — but it takes patience and a little luck to catch an entire flock on the wing.

After two days of searching, our moment came near dusk on the remote Knotts Island just south of Virginia Beach. This cluster of geese had been bobbing on the surface for hours before something — heaven knows what — startled them. Instantly they were clamoring toward the sky.

Tundra Swans are the second largest swans in North America.

Becky Harrison, the supervisory wildlife biologist at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge near Nags Head, N.C., saw the first arrivals in November. Their numbers gradually build toward a peak in mid-February.

There’s actually a trio of grand white birds that overwinters here, Harrison said. The Tundra Swan is the most elegant, the American White Pelican is the largest, but Snow Geese are the most impressive in their huge numbers.

Snow Geese in the Pea Island refuge. Photo by Becky Harrison

Snow Geese spend their summers in the far north, breeding along the tundras of Canada and Alaska. They’re best known for their bright white plumage with black wing tips, for their powerful flight and for their ravenous appetites.

Snow Goose / Photo by Becky Harrison

Researchers aren’t sure what’s behind the growth in population that has brought them back from near extinction a century ago. They suspect that the warming climate undermining many species is working in the goose’s favor. Every fall hundreds of thousands migrate not only to the East, but also down the Mississippi to several lower Midwestern States and also to California’s Central Valley.

“All these big birds,” said biologist Becky Harrison, standing under a Tundra Swan specimen, “they’re just so striking.”

Not everyone is glad to see them.

At Mackay Island, refuge manager Mike Hoff said during the day the geese often feed on the crops and vegetation in fields several miles away. With their growing numbers, wildlife managers say they’re damaging vegetation on the tundras as well.

But when the birds return to the refuge each evening by the thousands, they are a sight to behold. Part of the Snow Geese’s success is thought to be how they stick together – whether flying in formation or resting in the marshes. When you add in the Tundra Swans and White Pelicans, the masses of white forms out on the water are one of the great wonders of winter birding.

Tundra Swans catch the last light of the day on Mackay Island.

This post was originally published in January 2021, and we’ve updated and republished it as the Snow Geese season gets underway in North Carolina. Here’s a migration video that shows the annual migration routes of the Snow Geese across the U.S. and Canada:

And finally, here’s a gallery of the big white birds found along the eastern coast this time of year:

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