Photoperiod and Signs of Spring

Spring: the first 20 days!

Gray skies, cold rain, snow and flooding have slowed down the arrival of spring but photoperiod will rule the day. Increasing day length is a powerful force that insures the necessary progression of life stages, regardless of the weather.

Many aquatic species, including this Great Blue Heron, arrived to find traditional wetland habitats still covered in ice (23March2017).

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Snow geese were reported throughout Central New York during the last week of March. They were refueling on waste grain in corn fields and spread manure before continuing their journey to summer range in the Arctic (27-28March2017).

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Wild turkeys were foraging on waste grain too, but increasing daylight was also triggering the mating urge in males; many were observed in full display posture, strutting for uninterested hens (1April2017).

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Breeding populations of ring-necked pheasants no longer occur in this region, but some are occasionally released into the wild for recreational purposes. This cock pheasant is crowing and flapping his wings in an attempt to attract a hen (6April2017).

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Red-winged blackbirds arrived several weeks ago and are defending their breeding territories aggressively, despite the elements (7April2017).

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A sure sign of Spring is the transformation of male goldfinches as they molt into their bright breeding plumage (7April2017).

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Groundhogs emerged from hibernation in March to find a snow-covered landscape. In the days ahead they faced yet another hardship – the flooding of burrows in marginal habitats. This one seems to have weathered the storms well…but is grazing in the middle of a hay field, a long way from the nearest burrow. Can it outrun an eagle, fox or coyote? Survival is still questionable (8April2017).

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Photos by NB Hunter, March 23 – April 8, 2017. ©All Rights Reserved.

Spring Scenes and Winter Landscapes

A rainy, overcast day with dirty snow and mud seems like a good time to reflect on the month of March and illustrate early spring in Central New York. I’ll emphasize wet places and some of the birds that frequent them.

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Hooded Merganser

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Canada Goose and a pair of ring-necked ducks

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Canada geese grazing in a farm field

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Killdeer grooming at a spring seep

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A pair of mallards under the reflection of deep snow

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Great Blue Heron over ice and Canada geese on open water

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A solitary Snow Goose in a flock of Canada geese

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Migrating snow geese above farm fields, refueling on waste grain

Photos by NB Hunter, March 2017. ©All Rights Reserved.

Flying High

I walk for wellness but this morning I came home with a stiff neck! I watched wave after wave of geese flying high and with purpose, all moving in a northerly direction. Three or four thousand birds passed overhead in an hour, many of them so high they were more easily heard than seen, dark specs strung out across the puffy white clouds.

Some flocks were Canada Geese…

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while others were Snow Geese.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Waterfowl on the Move

There are now Canada Geese, resident and migratory, on every puddle, pond, lake and wetland. Their favorite feeding grounds are harvested corn fields near open surface waters.

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Canada Geese and other waterfowl on Woodman Pond

Geese aren’t the only waterfowl species enjoying the ice-free water.

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Common Merganser, males

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Common Mergansers, male and female

Yesterday, a flock of nearly 100 migrating Snow Geese chose to work the corn stubble and refuel, rather than battle strong, cold wind and snow. SnowGeese5Apr14#021Ec3x5 SnowGeese5Apr14#049E Snowgeese5Apr14#061Ec8x10

My favorite waters this time of year are small streams; tree-lined, canal waterways; and swamps. They’re usually quiet, off the beaten path, teeming with wildlife, and provide more photo ops within reach of my modest gear. Wood Ducks are cruising around in these places now, thinking ahead to the nesting season.

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Male Wood Duck, one of several on the Chenango Canal

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Snow Geese

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Part of a migrating flock of Snow Geese feeding in early March

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.

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Snow Geese feeding aggressively; a flock of feeding geese always has a “lookout”, ready to sound the alarm if a threat appears.

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).

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Part of a small white morph flock, with both adult and immature birds.

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Display of the white body and black wing primaries of an adult white morph Snow Goose.

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Adult and immature (center) white morph Snow Geese

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Foreground: adult white morph Snow Geese with dirty-yellow feeding stains on their heads; background: immature blue morph Snow Geese.

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.

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Snow Geese feeding with their heads buried in the corn waste and mud.

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.