Is the Seneca Serengeti headed our way this month?

02/13/2019
story and photos by Derek Doeffinger

Could this be the year the Seneca Serengeti returns to the Finger Lakes? We’ll know in the next few weeks. It seems that every few years nature conspires to send us a migration of such massive proportions that it conjures up the spectacle of the famous Serengeti migrations in Africa.

Only our migration consists of snow geese.

Look again at the picture above. I took it last year and thought that’s a lot of geese. But how many? I was clueless. So I sent it to Cornell ornithologist Dr. Kevin McGowan, an expert in many things ornithological, including estimating the number of birds in a flock. What did he say? “There are at least 10,000 birds in that picture.” He then added, “Most estimators tend to significantly underestimate the number of birds in a flock.”

And that was only half the flock.

Dr. McGowan upped the ante while talking about his own experiences with local snow geese. “One flock I carefully counted was about 350,000.” He then talks about a video his son took that revealed a highly concentrated flock of snow geese flying by the camera for a minute and half. He and his son believe that flock was close to 1,000,000 birds.

Each March, Canadian bound snow geese stop at Cayuga and Seneca Lakes. Sometimes they spread out; sometimes they congregate in large groups. The persistent searcher will eventually find large “rafts” of geese floating in the lakes, as well as large flocks feeding in the nearby fields and flying overhead. Infrequently they are extraordinarily large.

Dr. McGowan explained that the birds coming together in gigantic flocks is a bit random and unpredictable, largely dependent on the weather, food supply, and other factors. He suggests that from year to year, the total number of snow geese passing through our area each spring is fairly consistent, and that the size of the flocks depends partly on how long they stay and how they congregate. Keep in mind they don’t all arrive at once.

Think of LaGuardia Airport during December. Holiday travel begins gradually but steadily builds. To the casual observer the airport seems extra busy but not jam packed as long as outgoing flights continue. But if snow storms strike for several days in the Southeast and Midwest, essentially grounding all flights leaving LaGuardia (but not all coming in), then arriving passengers continually pile up until they’re sleeping on the floors, counters, seats – taking up any space available. All waiting to fly out. So the number of passengers coming into the airport over several days hasn’t changed but since they can’t leave, the number in the airport during those no-travel days doubles, triples, or even quadruples until they’re headline news.

Snow geese stopping over in the Finger Lakes can form a similar logjam, especially if it turns extra cold during their stopover. Thousands continue to arrive and join those already there. If they decide to wait for warmer weather and a north bound breeze, then the population on the lakes surges.

Why do the snow geese even visit us? The short answer is because we’re in their flight path. Much of the eastern North American population of snow geese winters over in northern Chesapeake Bay. When spring approaches they head home to raise a family around Hudson Bay.

But why do they stop in the Fingers Lake, you ask again? They stop to eat and rest. “And they stop here because they are relatively efficient flying cross country,” McGowan says. “So they fly in a fairly straight line. If you draw a straight line from the northern Chesapeake Bay to the southern Hudson Bay, it passes over Seneca and Cayuga Lakes.”

This challenged my geography knowledge so I checked it out on Google Maps. He’s right. My line from Chesapeake Bay to Hudson Bay crossed over the middle of Seneca Lake, roughly 250 miles from the north shore of Chesapeake Bay, and almost a third of the way to Hudson Bay.

There are two types of snow geese: the lesser snow goose (about 5 pounds) and the greater snow goose (about 7 pounds but as heavy as 9). Both come through our area. Snow geese are bright white with a black swath at the tip of each wing. The lesser snow goose has a minority variation called the blue morph. It’s quite dark with a white head.

Snow geese are vegetarians. They gobble down nearly all parts of grasses, sedges, willows, and more. They also like the leftovers in corn fields.

Dr. McGowan revealed the snow goose population has doubled in the past 15 years and is near an all-time high. The increase began about 100 years ago when market hunting was banned. It jumped again in the 1960s when regulations spurred an increase of their wetlands habitat that was accompanied by an increase in corn planting. Today the concern is that the population is too high and they may be damaging the environment, especially the tundra on their summer grounds.

The high population is certainly the reason we now see such large flocks. But those large flocks can create a natural spectacle. Seeing thousands of these birds descending onto the fields or one of the lakes is a sight to behold but difficult to describe. You could imagine yourself in a snow globe blizzard, in a ticker tape parade, or a shower of wedding confetti.

Or that you were on the ground underneath Jack’s giant beanstalk when the package with his new big screen TV (the size of a football field) arrived just as the Beanstalk Super Bowl game was about to start. So the giant tore it open, and, in his rush, spilled out thousands of goose-sized packing peanuts sending them swirling and drifting earthward to land all around you, and Jack.

Ludicrous description? Maybe. But if you experience a giant flock, you may feel you’re in a Finger Lakes fairy tale. Dr. McGowan adds, “It’s an unbelievable thing to see.”

Even more spectacular is watching a giant raft of 10,000 birds floating on Cayuga Lake take flight. Unless frightened, the geese don’t lift off simultaneously. They do it in a stuttering, poorly choreographed sequence, like a discombobulated stadium wave.

It starts with a few birds honking nervously. Then a few more. Then some flap and take off. Then more honk. And more take off. As anxiety builds, a flock takes to the air. Then another. Faster and farther the word spreads from bird to bird: take off, take off, you stupid goose. The chain reaction can’t be stopped.

From the thousands now overhead, an ear-bursting cacophony of honking, trumpeting and goose shouting shakes the very air. It’s as if you’ve walked into a year-end assembly of screaming jumping elementary kids the very moment their fun-loving, rabble-rousing gym teacher has worked them up into anticipative frenzy and unleashed them to begin their summer vacations.

Thousands, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of snow geese have scaled the skies sharing one ancient thought: it’s time to go home. And as you watch them disappear over the horizon, a strange longing may linger deep inside.


Finding the snow geese

How do you find them? That’s the big question. I do it by driving around the lakes and keeping an eye on the sky. I usually start around March 3. But the local birders usually know when the snow geese have arrived in the area; same for the folks at the Montezuma Refuge. I’ve had good luck finding snow geese on the northern half of Cayuga Lake, including the shallows by the village of Cayuga down to Aurora.

Dr. McGowan mentioned seeing large flocks on Seneca Lake, especially at the southerly end. Some may even show up on Keuka Lake. In addition to feeding in farm fields, they often feed at the Savannah mud flats a few miles north of Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, east of Rt. 89.