Photos by NB Hunter 8March2017. ©All Rights Reserved.
“Autumn is a second Spring when every leaf is a flower.” -Albert Camus
In the fall we track the changing colors of foliage much the same way that we follow the sequence of bloom with spring wildflowers. Leaf peeping is a big event! Early autumn (late September and the first week or so in October in Central New York) is a time of excitement and anticipation, with everyone gazing into a crystal ball to predict peak foliage color and schedule outdoor activities.
A recent trip to my childhood home 400 miles southwest of here reminded me that wishful thinking has no influence on Mother Nature’s timetable! The river bottom watersheds in western Pennsylvania were still very green, leading me to explore the more detailed landscapes in front of my nose.
After returning to Central New York, I began to see a bit more color but summer greens were still dominant. Warm temperatures, plenty of sun and the absence of a hard frost have resulted in a gradual transition from summer to fall, with a pleasing overlap of the seasons.
Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.
Most of my travels take me through rural areas where dairy farms still dominate the landscape. These are priceless visual and ecological resources that attract and support diverse wildlife populations as well as livestock.
Pigeons and crows are permanent residents, usually seen foraging on waste grain in harvested fields or in spread manure.
Once or twice a week I sit in the evening near a field of corn, oats or hay to observe wildlife. Most evenings there is a predictable sequence of visitors, starting with groundhogs, does and fawns.
Small flocks of geese glide into cut hay fields throughout the evening.
Bucks, especially the seasoned veterans, arrive as the sun leaves the fields and camera gear is nothing more than extra weight.
The last light of the evening, in the clouds. Somewhere below the cloud, in an open field on the highest hilltop, was the dark silhouette of a huge buck. It was his time.
Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.
After weeks of searching and following leads, I finally stumbled into feeding Snow Geese on March 30. By Snow Goose standards, the flocks were tiny: 15 in one and a mixed flock of about 30 Snow Geese and a dozen Canada Geese in the other. In both cases the birds were feeding in fallow cornfields not far from open water and wetlands, refueling for their long migration to tundra habitats in Canada and Alaska.
My first impression of a flock of Snow Geese in a bare field is the presence of a mass of large white objects that don’t belong there, that there is something foreign scattered about (as is the case of farmland adjacent to the local landfill). The only sizable flocks of white birds normally seen in fields in this area are gulls, so something much larger doesn’t register. After reviewing my images, I discovered that a flock may have more color variation than is evident from a glance at distant birds without optics. Immature birds of the white morph Snow Goose (the variant most common in the East) are more gray than white. Adult and immature “Blue Geese”, a color morph more common in the Gulf and West, are mostly dark gray (adults have a white head and neck).
Increased Snow Geese sightings and more liberal hunting regulations should come as no surprise. Numbers have exploded across the continent over the past 30 – 40 years, in some areas increasing by a factor of 20 or more. Among the problems associated with abnormally high populations of Snow Geese (and Canada Geese as well) are damage to wildlife habitat (including their own) and agricultural crops. Snow Geese eat plant materials, and will graze, rip, shear, root and pull at just about anything within reach, above ground or below. This includes grasses and grass-like plants, grains, tubers, rhizomes and the succulent parts of woody shrubs. During this photo shoot, I was impressed with the manner in which a goose aggressively yanked a corn cob, with part of the stalk still attached, from partially frozen mud. The yellowish stain on the head of some of the geese in these photos is reportedly the result of feeding in mud and muck.
Regardless of how you feel about the burgeoning goose populations in North America, a flock of Snow Geese foraging in a field with a backdrop of earth tones or in flight with evergreen trees or blue sky beyond is a beautiful sight that isn’t soon forgotten.
The photo gallery that follows is my attempt to capture and share the beauty of a rising flock as I experienced it. Click on an image for a full-screen view.
All photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.
The longer and warmer days of March have arrived, as have the red-winged blackbirds. Groups of deer and turkeys are everywhere, feeding throughout the day. If I travel near open water – lakes, ponds, rivers or swamps – Canada geese are ubiquitous and dominant, by sound if not sight. It’s hard to tell who’s who, as migrating geese are following the retreating snowline northward; large numbers of “resident” geese are very active; and all are moving daily between shared resting and feeding areas.
Like any serious wildlife photographer, I like the morning hours. So do geese. The chatter starts before sunrise as they become restless and prepare to leave nighttime retreats for nearby fields.The honking increases in volume and intensity as sunrise approaches. First light is soon followed by a series of noisy feeding flights.
Geese consume a variety of plant materials, including grasses and grass-like plants, wild seeds and berries, and agricultural grains (waste seed in spread manure is also on the menu). Submerged aquatic vegetation in shallow water is consumed by “dabbling”, where they tilt forward until balancing upside down, head and neck under water.
At this time of year geese spend a lot of time on the thin ice at water’s edge, resting and preening.
Geese are among our largest birds, with a wingspan of up to six feet and maximum weight of over 15 pounds (size varies with the numerous subspecies in North America). .
In recent years goose populations have increased nationwide. In many areas geese have become a serious nuisance and the focus of intense research and management programs. This is in large part due to increasing numbers of “resident” geese. This population consists of geese that were brought to the Northeast from the Midwest in the mid-20th century, mostly for government and private game farming and stocking programs. The semi-domesticated birds thrived, especially in relatively safe, man-made habitats such as parks, lawns and golf courses. Normal mortality factors like hunting and natural predation are negligible in these areas, resulting in uncontrolled population growth. Under these conditions it is not unusual to find 20 year-old geese! The problems associated with large numbers of geese in urban and suburban areas are many – overgrazed lawns; large quantities of messy, bacteria-laden droppings; aggressive behavior during the nesting season; a hazardous presence at airports; etc. Efforts to manage nuisance geese involve an array of tactics, including repellents, fencing, egg treatments, habitat alteration, and controlled harvest. Hopefully, the implementation of sustainable, long-term solutions will allow all to coexist and insure that the dawn flyways remain noisy.
All photos by NB Hunter
A couple of windy days with temperatures near zero have me thinking about the weeks ahead. The days are noticeably longer and the sun higher in the sky, meaning the open, ice-free zones on local lakes, ponds and streams will be expanding and full of life. Many of these special places are very accessible, near walking trails and secondary roads, providing great opportunities to observe and photograph the retreat of winter.
One of my favorite places to be in at this time of year is a ground blind just beyond the bank of a stream bordering a managed wetland. On this occasion, the water was free of ice, except for a narrow strip along shore, the sky was bright, and the place was alive with geese overhead and ducks on the water. Recent sightings of bald eagles added to my excitement and anticipation. Eventually, I spotted two mergansers, diving and feeding along, advancing upstream in my direction. I was preparing for a photo of them on the open water when, suddenly and unexpectedly, a submarine-like form appeared under the ice in front of me. Mesmerized, I just stared into the water, forgetting about the camera in front of my nose, as one of the mergansers fed along under the ice, then burst to the surface right in front of me! I failed to get that perfect action shot, the one I really wanted, but this photo keeps the memory alive!
All photos by NB Hunter, 2012