Monday, November 10, 2008

Snow Geese Overhead

For the past several nights, I've heard overhead the sound of geese: Not the familiar Canada geese so common on our golf courses and farm fields. This is a higher-pitched call, yet still unmistakably emanating from geese. Early in the morning, I've seen them flying, their white forms and black wing tips visible even as they soar high overhead. Snow geese.

Most of these birds won't stop here: They're moving with purpose, heading straight for the Klamath Basin of Oregon and California.

They're on an almost incomprehensibly long flight, one that biologists are just beginning to fully understand.

Snow geese breed and spend the summer in various locations of the Arctic. The ones you'll see in Idaho in the spring and fall nest very far north, on the Wrangel Island on the Gulf of Alaska. Wildlife biologist John Takekawa, as reported in Wild Bird magazine, was part of a team of scientists that tracked this population.

As it migrates in the fall from Wrangel Island, the population moves along the coast of Alaska and British Columbia. About half the population goes on to Puget Sound.

The other half, though, makes a rather long detour, heading east to Alberta. These are the birds you'll see here. From there, the birds head south to Montana, then southeast through Idaho and Oregon to the Klamath Basin.

In the central part of the country, snow geese populations have exploded as they feed and thrive on rice farms. Many biologists believe they exist at such high densities that they destroy their own nesting habitat in the Arctic. Solving that problem will take creative management and solutions that challenge our various values about nature.

The other challenge faced by snow geese is loss of wetlands. On a migration that spans such a huge distance, winding from the Arctic to the British Columbia coast to the Canadian prairie to Idaho to California--these birds need places to rest along the way. Places like the Conservancy's Ball Creek Ranch in North Idaho and Idaho Department of Fish and Game's Ft. Boise Wildlife Management Area in South Idaho are both perfect places to see the importance of wetlands for snow geese.

Tonight, listen overhead, and wish these long-distance flyers good luck on their ultra-ultra-marathon.--Matt Miller

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