If you’ve ever driven past a farm field occupied by a massive flock of large white birds, chances are you’re looking at snow geese.
Snow geese used to be a rare sighting here in Delaware. But in the last couple decades, their numbers have skyrocketed. Now, tens of thousands of them stop by the First State every winter. Their stunning gatherings draw tourists from all over the country and the world.
But this year, some have noticed that snow geese have been arriving late. And others think there weren’t as many around this season.
On the last weekend of February, there’s a small crowd of birdwatchers at a farm field near the entrance of the Bombay Hook Wildlife Refuge -- including a couple of guys who’ve been looking for geese since dawn.
“This is the first really big flock we’ve come across," said Alan Kneidel, a graduate student at Delaware State University. "We’ve been sticking with these and picking through them and seeing what we can find.”
He estimates that there are three or four thousand geese in this flock -- not all of which are snow geese. Through their expensive, hardcore birdwatching spotting scopes, they’ve also spotted some Ross’ geese in the mix as well.
That day, Kneidel and his friends had organized their first goose survey, which they call the Delaware Goose-A-Palooza. About 40 other people had also signed up for the survey, joining in on the search for geese, especially rare geese.
But the snow geese that dominate this flock are hardly considered rare - at least, not anymore. Forty years ago, it was amazing to see one snow goose flying over Delaware -- now, when they take off from their foraging grounds, it's a tremendous chorus.
So it’s no wonder that people travel here from all over the country and the world, even, to look at the sight of these incredibly white, beautiful and numerous birds.
But some folks think that these birds haven’t been around as much this winter. Keith Maurer, who lives in Virginia Beach, was traveling with his wife to the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina.
"There was a festival down there called Swan Days," said Maurer. "The way it was advertised, this was the wintering home of I think about 70 to 80 percent of the tundra swans and snow geese in North America.”
He did a little research beforehand and read that one could expect to see tens of thousands of these birds at this one very specific spot at the refuge.
“We got down there and it was very thin," said Maurer. "There were quite a few, but not tens of thousands. And I asked around to some of the locals and they noticed this year that there were fewer and fewer coming.”
The question of whether there’s been less snow geese this winter has also been raised here in Delaware. Sure they’re pretty. But their arrival also means an uptick in tourism dollars.
Snow geese usually show up in Delaware in late October or November. Tina Watson, is an outdoor recreation planner at Bombay Hook. Starting in late fall, she typically gets about one call a day from someone looking to find snow geese. And sometimes, she has to let them down.
“Oh yeah, they definitely they want me to say...we’ve come for sunset on Thursday and Friday and there will be thousands there," said Watson. "Yeah, they’re very disappointed…”
In previous years, she says that she’d normally tell people to wait until after Thanksgiving. But she’s been giving more careful advice this season.
“You have to go by the weather," said Watson. "If the lakes and areas up north, like in New York aren’t frozen, then those birds might not go down here. It might be the second or third week in December before we get quite a few numbers of geese.”
Visitors who come to Bombay Hook will often stay at Best Western in Smyrna. Manager Scott Patel says that he saw a major drop in guests who stayed at the hotel around November, which he estimates to be around 60 to 70 percent. Though he didn’t give permission to record our conversation, he did say that he can usually tell who the Bombay Hook visitors are -- they often stay for 2 to 3 days in a row. And they also tend to bring a lot of gear with them, like tripods and cameras. He didn’t see very many of these folks at the beginning of winter.
Bill Stewart, director of conservation and community at the American Birding Association, agrees that the snow geese arrived to Delaware late this year. But he and his fellow birders have come to a different assessment,
“We think there’s been more snow geese in Delaware than we’ve ever seen," said Stewart.
But he also thinks that they’ve been harder to find this year at their usual spots at the Bombay Hook and Prime Hook Wildlife Refuges.
“The thing is, they’re not going to some of their normal, easy to access, feeding or staging areas," said Stewart. "Partly due to the fact that they ruined the habitat of some of these marshes, so they’re going elsewhere.”
And when tourists call the American Birding Association for advice on finding snow geese, this is what he tells them.
“They’re not congregating in Bombay like they have in the past, so they’ve been really utilizing agricultural fields and staging on the river and ocean instead of the marshes," said Stewart.
So it’s possible that this year, the snow geese here and elsewhere are simply looking for food in places that they haven’t exhausted.
While there are many spectacular birds to see in Delaware, Tina Watson at Bombay Hook says there are some who come only to see the snow geese.
“It is quite a remarkable scene to witness," she said. "To have them all come in at once, group after group, following each other in and landing in the impoundments. It really is a nice scene to see.”
Over the years, these huge flocks of snow geese have, in a way, drawn flocks of humans to Delaware and the greater Mid-Atlantic region. And that interest means when the geese operate on different schedules or roost away from their usual spots, people take notice. So they might have to adapt with the geese in order to catch a glimpse.
This story was produced in partnership with iSeeChange, a NASA-partnered citizen science project to investigate the changes that you see in your backyard. If you’ve observed something interesting this winter in your neck of the woods, please let us know at iSeeChange.org.