No one saw it coming.
When Pennsylvania built a 6,400-acre waterfowl refuge on farmland in a southeastern corner of the state in the early 1970s, the goal was to bolster struggling Canada goose populations. and give hunters in the populated eastern part of the state a first-rate waterfowl crack. filming.
Today, however, the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area attracts many more photographers and tourists than hunters. The object of their affection: up to 150,000 snow geese congregating every day for about a month in February and March. They are on a 3,000 mile migration from wintering grounds in the Chesapeake Bay region to their arctic breeding grounds. Joining them at the stopover are smaller numbers of Tundra Swans and Canada Geese.
The “Blizzard of White,” as local residents affectionately call it, gives the illusion that the fields and 400-acre lake are blanketed in snow. When the birds take off in unison in big waves, the sound of their excited horns and wings chopping the water can seem deafening. A mass take-off is truly one of nature’s moving spectacles. A recent witness described it as “like stepping into the pages of National Geographic”. The explosion is invariably followed by dead silence.
The annual spring mass migration of the beautiful white birds has made Middle Creek, managed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, a worldwide destination for nature lovers and photographers.
In recent years, migration has attracted a large number of international visitors, especially from China and other Asian countries. At one time, information signs in Middle Creek were printed in Mandarin, as well as English, Spanish, and German.
Many enjoy photography, but there are also spiritual draws, explained Zhen Li of State College, Pennsylvania. Like 200 others, she had arrived in Middle Creek at 6 a.m. on a Monday in early March, with temperatures in the 20s, to watch the takeoffs.
“They mate for life. Fidelity and loyalty are truly inspiring,” Li said, adding that the white birds on the blue water felt like a cloud had fallen to earth.
Among the other people gathered expectantly at dawn this morning were four young Amish teachers who wanted to witness what they called ‘God’s creation’ and be back at their little school by 8am .
A retired couple from Pennsylvania had driven an hour to see the noisy scene for the second time. “It’s so beautiful to see so many snow geese and tundra swans in one place,” said Vicki Brickner. “And when they start popping, you can’t even put it into words. It’s incredible.
That morning, parents pulled their children out of bed and wrapped them in blankets. Some were sitting on chairs, wearing earmuffs, waiting for the big event. A couple stood with camera tripods above a picnic table. A man hunched over a long camera lens had come from Alabama after learning on a bird photography trip to Tennessee that the snow goose scene at Middle Creek was a must-see.
Many visitors look to witness an explosion of snow geese at sunrise. But the afternoons are also popular, when hanks of geese, sunlight illuminating their bodies like globes, return to the lake in large flocks after feeding in the area’s fields.
Middle Creek, nestled in a valley of farmland in Lancaster and Lebanon counties, is called a management area, not a refuge, as snow geese, Canada geese and ducks are hunted from hides checked before the start of the migration.
But because state taxpayer money helped create the site, public recreation was also part of the plan. The lake is used for fishing and paddling, and miles of trails wind through both the area’s forests and fields and the surrounding state game lands. A visitor center offers incredible views and exhibits of the area’s waterfowl and wildlife.
The area’s diverse habitat makes it a magnet for birdwatchers looking for a wide variety of species. The lake has supported breeding pairs of eagles for years. About 33 species of ducks have been sighted, as well as shorebirds. A colony of great blue herons, meadowlarks, bobolinks, short-eared owls and northern harriers are also among the potential sightings.
To provide the waterfowl with everything they need for an important rest during their epic migration, land managers constructed the lake along with shallow ponds and wetlands. Former agricultural fields were planted with millet, corn and other foods that waterfowl feed on.
It worked. Middle Creek opened in 1972 and the number of waterfowl stopping there has been increasing ever since.
Tundra swans first appeared during their spring migration in 1976 with about a dozen. Now you can see around 15,000 in good years and 5,000 in less dynamic years.
The arrival of snow geese started slowly, with only a few hundred to 1,500 from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s. Then their numbers exploded. Around 50,000 were counted in 1995 and 100,000 the following year.
Now, you can expect around 250,000 snow geese to visit Middle Creek from late January to mid-March, when the last stragglers fly north again. The single-day high is 200,000 on February 21, 2018.
Middle Creek has become a critical waterfowl migration stop on the Atlantic Flyway – an important north-south air route for migrating birds in North America. Snow geese may have traveled 800 miles before landing. A large percentage of the eastern North American population of tundra swans are thought to use Middle Creek as a migratory staging area.
In 2010, Middle Creek was named an Important Bird Area of Global Significance by the National Audubon Society.
As beautiful as it is, seeing so many snow geese in one place also portends trouble elsewhere: snow geese experienced a population boom in the 1980s and 1990s, at one point doubling in size every eight years, and their exploding numbers threatened to denude historic Arctic breeding grounds.
One of the main reasons for this increase was that geese adjusted their migratory flight habits to forage in agricultural fields. In addition, warmer winter temperatures have resulted in fewer deaths. This means healthier birds reach the breeding grounds and produce more young.
In 1998, snow geese were declared overabundant by game managers in the United States and Canada. Since then, liberalized hunting seasons and bag limits have stabilized populations. But the gunshots ringing out from surrounding land in Middle Creek during snow goose sightings often surprise and confuse visitors.
Yet, as the snow geese find a balance with the world around them, their spectacular convergence at Middle Creek is an annual visual and aural marvel.
Editor’s note: Ad Crable is a Pennsylvania-based writer for the Bay Journal. This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 edition of the Bay Journal and was distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.
The Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area is open year-round. Free entry. The Visitor Center, located at 100 Museum Road, Stevens, Pennsylvania, is open February through Thanksgiving Eve, Tuesday through Sunday. For more information, call 717-733-1512 or visit pgc.pa.gov. (Click on “Education,” then “Visit Middle Creek.”)
Consider visiting on a weekday or early morning to escape the crowds: the past two waterfowl migration seasons have seen unprecedented numbers of visitors. During the first weekend of March 2021, around 10,000 people blocked the roads.
Geese and Tundra Swans may begin to appear at Middle Creek in late January and may remain until late March depending on the weather. In typical years, the peak of migration is between mid-February and mid-March. A good way to keep an eye on the gathering is to watch Middle Creek’s live camera year-round on the lake. Go to hdontap.com, then enter “PA snow geese” in the search field. The Middle Creek website gives updates on the estimated number of geese and swans in Middle Creek every few days.
There are miles of trails and three picnic areas around the lake. Note that drones are strictly prohibited and violators have been prosecuted. The most popular spot for viewing waterfowl is via the Willow Point Trail. The 0.4 mile paved handicap accessible trail leads to a peninsula that juts out into the lake. The self-guided car tour that follows a route around the lake, open from March 1 to September 15, is also popular. The route has seven marked stops, and you can listen to the 4:20 p.m. driving tour as you drive. Another vantage point is at the lake boat launch at the Red Rock Picnic Area.