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Thursday, March 10, 2016

Middle Creek BCDC field trip, March 5, 2016

          About a dozen BCDC members spent the morning of Saturday, March 5 at Middle Creek reservation near Kleinfeltersville -- and a wonderful experience it was, set up by John and Susan Damico, many thanks to them!  The weather was kind to us, cold but not too brisk, and dry.  It was interesting to note that Middle Creek has become a place of multiple popular pilgrimages at this time of year for the spectacular numbers of Snow Geese and Tundra Swans, with some rarities added.  Ten years ago one could almost count upon having the entire place to oneself at the peak time of spring wildfowl migration, but now, in 2016, the parking lots are crowded absolutely to overflowing and parked cars line the roadsides for a hundred yards or more in both directions from a parking lot.  One might for a moment wish there were not so very many people, crowds even, but then one remembers that it is the caring and the loving enthusiasm of so many devotees of wildlife that give it a chance for preservation, so after all is said and done one has to be indeed grateful for their presence: every member of the public, save the occasional beloved (although maybe squalling) child was quiet and respectful, and kept away from all the banned breeding areas on the reservation.  It was good indeed to see many young people there, no doubt the first birding experience for some of them, and we encountered several foreigners eagerly exploring this facet of America.
          Snow Geese were the stars of the trip, oh yes indeed they were!  We first caught a glimpse of them as little more than tiny dots high in the sky, flying in to the reservation all through the morning in lines and V's way high up over our heads.  It almost looked as though a child had scribbled lines of little dots on the wallpaper.  (This and all subsequent photographs were taken by Dave Eberly.  Thank you, Dave!)  

          As the birds far aloft flew closer they were clearly identifiable as Snow Geese. Then they landed, and a whole stretch of the lake turned snowy white. Several thousand Snow Geese landed on a field bordering the loop road that we took around the lake, so we drove across and stopped as close as we could.  There was no way to estimate the numbers of the geese since they stood or sat so thick upon the ground that it was not possible to count, say, a hundred geese and then multiply that block of a hundred across the whole mass, counting how many blocks comprised the flock. 

          Four times I scanned the entire flock carefully, counting the Blue Geese.  You can see one Blue Goose in the centre of this photograph, and another in the lower left-hand corner.  My counts yielded fourteen, sixteen, eighteen and twenty Blue Geese.  The total varies because sometimes the Blue Geese were hidden behind white morphs, so my own count was no more than approximate.  I thought that if one could establish the accepted ratio of white to blue morphs one might get a handle on the total size of the flock by counting the blues alone.  But the only website I have been able find with any reference to this ratio was '', which gave the ratio as 100:1.  (There are also videos of Snow Geese flocks on this site.) A ratio of 100:1 would mean that the whole flock numbered at least 2,000, but I suspect it was a good deal larger than that.  Meanwhile of course there were all those other thousands of other geese still out there sitting on the water.  Readers, please let me know if you can come up with any better ratio!
          Meanwhile Al Guarente and Dave Eberly concentrated on scouring the huge flock for a Ross's Goose, and they found one, --- more power to them, since identification was quite a challenge in spite of the good light.  For myself, I had a much easier time counting Blues.
          We noticed incidentally, some little distance away, two immature Bald Eagles floating lazily across the sky a couple of hundred feet up or so, more or less in our direction, and we didn't think very much about that.  But the Snow Geese did, oh yes, did they ever!  With an echoing squeal of several thousand voices, and the rushing roar of double several thousand wings, the entire vast flock suddenly and with no warning took off into the air, peeling back consecutively from those closest to where the invasive eagles put in their appearance, all the way back to those geese that had taken their places at the end of the field farthest from the lake. These were actually the geese closest to us and to the couple of dozen other visitors' cars pulled up along the verge of the road; these were the last to take to the air, a few seconds after the first.  The unfolding ascent of thousands upon thousands of geese struck me at once as just like the steady peeling back of a thick section of the skin of an enormous ripe orange -- but the noise was something else.  We gazed open-mouthed in awe at this phenomenon of nature.  It took a distinct and appreciable length of time for all the thousands of these bulky birds to get themselves airborne, to wheel around, to loft themselves with all their strength into the sky, and to head out to the waters of the lake and to safety.  I suspect that this phenomenon was a spiritual experience for some of the fifty or sixty observers, perhaps even a religious experience.  I found myself repeating the words of Kenneth Clark in his book Civilisation: "I never come to Iona -- and I used to come here almost every year when I was young -- without the feeling that 'some God is in this place.'"
          Through the half-hour or more while we were standing around admiring the great flock on the ground before those rude young eagles disturbed the resting geese, we noticed from time to time here a few, there a few Tundra Swans taking off from the surface of the lake.  There were several hundred of these swans in groups here and there across the lake, not tens of thousands like the Snow Geese. The swans were also finding Middle Creek a blessed stopover and resting place on their migratory flight far, far to the north, away to the Arctic coast of Canada.   

          Tundra Swans are among the most elegant of the birds one can hope to see in a lifetime, and their voices delight the ear with a sweet flute-like note much gentler and much more refined than the assertive honking of Canada Geese or the more yapping calls of the Snowies.  Most of the Tundra Swans floated gently around on the lake, or silently preened themselves, but every now and again, a few of them would take off, running with all their might across the surface of the lake, beating their wings as hard as they could and eventually becoming airborne.  Most of these would circle around and then skid down to land once again on the surface of the lake.  But some chose to move on, northwards, with no ceremony of farewell or God-be-with-you, heeding only the silent call of migration.  As few as two or three, or perhaps as many as a couple of dozen, would turn away from the lake, rise up not so very much higher than the treetops, and then beat their way steadily north, up the long slope, past the edge of the dark wooded hill, and away over the ridge and out of sight, heading for the Arctic.  If there is a God in this place, thought I, surely these are his angels.
           Well, we drove along the rest of the loop road around the lake past the fields and the woods, glimpsing a Killdeer out on a field, emerging at Red Rock landing stage on the lake shore, from where far away across the water we could discern Pintail, Shoveler, Wigeon and Red-breasted Mergansers, mostly tucked in under the opposite shore. 

          Closer at hand, just a little farther along the road back to the reservation headquarters, on an open bay along the shore of the lake, Al Guarente and Dave Eberly found for us an undoubted Cackling Goose, here photographed on the water following a Canada Goose.  The signature round head, the absence of a slope to the beak and the smaller size made identification as easy as it could ever be.  We also saw this Cackling Goose in flight among the Canadas.  And there, there was a Mink to be seen, wandering across the ice, in and out of the bushes that hung low to the water's edge.

          Lastly, at the pond at the foot of the hill below the refuge headquarters, we were gifted with the clear sight of five sparkling Ring-necked Ducks upending in search of food, a couple of vivid Buffleheads, and a few familiar Mallard.
         What a wonderful, what a marvelous trip, to a destination only an hour or a half away from the very centre of Delaware County!  Thank you,  John and Susan for setting up the trip, and to everyone else for your friendly companionship.
George Wrangham

                                                  Our Trip Leaders

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