The annual northerly migration of waterfowl that results in tens of thousands of snow geese and other birds appearing at the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area (MCWMA) has been delayed a bit in 2021, thanks to several weeks of snow and ice on the lake and surrounding land.

Now that the ice is melting, visitors to the state-owned tract in Lebanon and Lancaster Counties can expect to see the peak number of birds sometime within the next three weeks or so. On Monday, March 1, the Migration Update blog recorded the biggest numbers of the season so far: 40,000 snow geese, 750 Canada geese, and 800 tundra swans. In recent years, the seasonal peak has been estimated at well over 100,000 in total.

In an email exchange with LebTown, Joe Monfort, Environmental Education & Outreach Coordinator at MCWMA, explained that the ice at Middle Creek and in other areas along the migration routes has impacted the yearly spectacle that draws locals and international tourists alike.

“While snow geese and other migratory birds inherit internal clocks that instinctively tell them when and which direction to migrate, conditions on the ground fine-tune the exact timing of their migration each year,” Monfort wrote.

In past years, including 2017, 2018, and 2020, the peak number of birds was hit around the third week in February, though peaks in early-to-mid-March aren’t uncommon.

On the last Friday in February, large sections of the lake at Middle Creek were still frozen over. (Groh)

A chief concern for the snow geese is the availability of food; for them, this consists of vegetation in the form of roots, shoots, tubers, waste grains, and more. The fields around Middle Creek provide these while the lake provides a place to roost at night. When ice and snow continues to stick around, as it did this year, it prevents the geese from utilizing the area as a stopover.

“Some snow geese that have already started to migrate may bypass Middle Creek completely in search of a better place to rest and refuel,” Monfort continued. “However, as is the case this year, most snow geese have remained in the coastal waters of the mid-Atlantic where they have been overwintering waiting for better regional conditions.”

Because the weather has been unfavorable until recently, the birds arriving at the area may stay for shorter than usual. “They do have strong instincts to hit certain staging grounds and latitudes at certain times,” explained Monfort.

The flocks at Middle Creek include snow geese, tundra swans, and Canada geese. (Groh)

“Snow geese” is a name encompassing two subspecies, the greater and the lesser snow goose. At Middle Creek and other areas throughout the state, it’s the greater snow goose that is seen most often. Pennsylvania is part of the migratory pathway that snow geese follow as the seasons change; in the winter, the geese fly down the Atlantic coast as far as South Carolina, while the summer, breeding season in the Arctic begins.

Tundra swans, though their flocks are comparatively small in number, are also major visitors to the area. Middle Creek’s peak numbers of these swans are estimated to comprise around a quarter of the species’ eastern US population.

The short paved trail out to Willow Point is very popular, but there are other options available for those who’d like to avoid the larger crowds. (Groh)

For human visitors to Middle Creek, there are a several different options for viewing the flocks. The Visitors Center is currently closed due to COVID-19, but trails, including the popular Willow Point trail and pavilion off of Hopeland Road, are still open. Monfort stated that the MCWMA expects to see usual crowds this year.

During the day, many geese take to the surrounding fields to forage for food. It’s at sunrise and sunset that the number of birds on and over the waters is especially concentrated; MCWMA recommends heading out before 7:00 a.m. or after 4:00 p.m. to see the largest numbers.

If you can’t make it out to the lake, you can still take a look at the area from the live webcam.

As of March 1, the full tour road around the lake is open. Maps of the route and other trails at Middle Creek are available on the PA Game Commission website. For more information on visiting the area during the 2021 migration, check out this video that MCWMA produced earlier this year.

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Joshua Groh

Josh is a Cornwall native and freelancer with a love of local history and the outdoors.