As a kid growing up in Sea Breeze in the 1950s, I remember being fascinated by the sight and sound of a flock of migrating wild geese. We would all stop whatever we were doing to search the skies in an effort to be the first to pinpoint the V-shaped source of the distant honking. As the geese grew closer and louder, we watched in amazement, knowing that the semiannual migration signaled a change from one season to another. We were amazed in those days because—even though we lived near Irondequoit Bay and Lake Ontario—there weren’t that many wild geese to be seen.
The Canada Goose is a rather large migratory herbivore that has a preference for freshwater lakes, ponds, and wetlands. It is native to North America and breeds in Canada and a number of northern states including New York. In the late 19th century, uncontrolled hunting and the loss of wetland habitats caused a significant decline in its population numbers across its native range. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that federal and state wild goose and wetland restoration programs began to slowly turn that population decline around—which explains my childhood fascination anytime I saw a flock of geese.
The Snow Goose is another migratory waterfowl, which nests on the North American tundra in Canada and Alaska as well as in Greenland. Somewhat smaller than the black-and-gray Canada goose, the snow goose derives its name from its snowy white plumage, which is accented with black flight feathers on its wing tips. Believe it or not, I had never seen snow geese up close until Finger Lakes photographer Bill Banaszewski invited me to accompany him on a photo shoot ten years ago. I took the photo above at Seneca Lake State Park on that day.
Like the Canada Goose, the Snow Goose population numbers began a positive turnaround starting in the 1970s, resulting in a breeding population that exceeds 5 million birds today. Both species have recovered to a point beyond any expectations and today’s combined wild goose populations are the highest that they’ve ever been since records have been kept. In some places, they have even become a nuisance.
Both species fly in a V-shaped formation but the distinctive honk of the snow goose is noticeably different from that of the Canada goose. Flocks of both species can often be seen together on the open waters of the Finger Lakes during the winter or feeding in windswept farm fields adjacent to the lakes. The best places to see and photograph Canada and snow geese are at the north ends of Canandaigua, Seneca, and Cayuga Lakes and in the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge.