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Mike Jacobs Always in Season: Sudden cold should bring snow geese by the thousands to North Dakota

Snow goose numbers are problematic. A population explosion has led to deterioration of habitat on their nesting grounds along the Arctic coast of North America, including a famous site at La Perouse Bay, which is almost straight north of Grand Forks on the shore of Hudson Bay.

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Illustration/Mike Jacobs
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    Mike Jacobs.jpg
    Mike Jacobs.
    Tom Stromme

    GRAND FORKS – North Dakota’s bird list is now a double fistful short of 400 species. Probably the most numerous of these – and most notorious and the most spectacular – is that quintessential bird of October, the snow goose.

    Snow geese have begun to appear in the state. The Eastern North Dakota Wetlands Management District office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Devils Lake reports “huntable numbers” in the region west of Devils Lake. That means watchable numbers, too, of course.

    But the really big push of snow geese awaits a fast-moving cold front. That will drive birds south out of central Canada, where they have been loafing – and fattening up – on their way south.

    In the last half of the month – well, expect hundreds of thousands of snow geese. In fact, expect snow geese numbers in the seven digits. That means a million or more birds.

    This despite last spring’s bird flu epidemic, which was especially hard on snow geese, leaving hundreds lying dead on the landscape. Mark Fisher at the Devils Lake Wetlands Office has observed early arriving flocks and found good numbers of young-of-the-year geese, which gives some bird lovers optimism that the birds have weathered the epidemic. Hunters might welcome the news, as well. The snow goose is a much-pursued species.

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    But snow goose numbers are problematic. A population explosion has led to deterioration of habitat on their nesting grounds along the Arctic coast of North America, including a famous site at La Perouse Bay, which is almost straight north of Grand Forks on the shore of Hudson Bay. Not all of the birds passing through North Dakota come from that colony. Nor do the La Perouse birds make a beeline for winter quarters in the Gulf states.

    Instead, the birds wander westward, where they settle into grain fields in Manitoba and Saskatchewan before moving into North Dakota. This is an adjustment on the part of snow geese. A few decades ago, large flocks of snow geese were commonplace in the Red River Valley and the uplands just to the west.

    The area has been changed over from field crops such as wheat and barley to row crops, including corn, beans and potatoes. None of these appeal to the snow goose palate. Instead, they seek spilled grain and, especially, spilled grain that has sprouted. This is widely available in the grain-growing areas of central North Dakota, and that is where the snow geese congregate on their southward migration.

    Prior to the epidemic, snow goose numbers had grown alarmingly, and wildlife managers had undertaken various schemes to reduce the overall population. These included expanded hunting seasons and especially spring seasons. Fall and winter estimates of the continental population will undoubtedly lead to fine tuning these strategies.

    In the meantime, the spectacle of migrating snow geese is about to descend on central North Dakota. The Devils Lake area has long been reliable for snow geese. That’s about a 90-minute drive from Grand Forks. The area west of Devils Lake stretching westward and southward toward – but not quite reaching – the Missouri River Valley has lately been the epicenter of snow goose migration.

    It’s not just the sight of snow geese that impresses. There’s also the noise. The birds are loud and garrulous – practically deafening – easily drowning out the sound of an automobile engine.

    Snow geese come in two color phases. Most numerous are birds that are almost all white, except for black wings. Blue geese are mottled white, blue and brown, also with black wings. For many years, the two phases were considered separate species, but they interbreed freely and so the lumpers deemed them one species.

    A smaller, though very similar goose species sometimes shows up with snow geese. This is Ross’ goose. It’s worth searching a flock of snow geese for a stray Ross’ goose – but identification is not easy. It requires a close examination of the face. Ross’ goose has a noticeably smaller snout.

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    These are but two of the goose species that pass through the state. Canada geese are perhaps even more well known and well recognized than snow geese. They present their own identification challenge. Recently, the species was split, creating a new species, the cackling goose. The principal difference is size. Cackling geese are noticeably smaller.

    Finally there is the white-fronted goose – also known as “specklebelly” in hunting circles – next to Ross’ probably the least numerous goose in North Dakota. Like snow geese, they are passage migrants. Canada geese, on the other hand, are resident birds. These are giant Canada geese, rescued from extinction and now abundant in the state.

    Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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