Warmer winters are causing snow geese to begin their annual migrations earlier each year, according to a statement from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, so the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area will reopen for the season a little sooner than usual.

But, while the popular migration event is expected to start early this year, the number of winged visitors to the local lake are expected to continue to decline.

According to the Winter 2023 issue of Middle Creek in Motion, a game commission publication, “snow geese and other early ‘spring’ migrants will often begin their movement north, hampered only by iced over water and persistent snow on the ground. However, our winters have been getting warmer and snow and ice have persisted for shorter periods on the ground and on water.”

So, although Middle Creek for the past half-century has been closed from Thanksgiving to Feb. 1, the management area this year is ready to welcome visitors back to the site two weeks early.

“Snow geese have been arriving earlier each year, on par with milder conditions allowing them to do so,” the article explained. “Therefore, we need to also adapt and open our doors when crowds begin to arrive earlier to see the snow geese. Think of it as a domino effect!”

The Visitors Center at Middle Creek will reopen for public use on Tuesday, Jan. 16.

Read More: Thousands of migrating geese return to Middle Creek in yearly natural spectacle

However, the game commission noted, the numbers of snow geese stopping in Middle Creek each winter have been dwindling in recent years, and bird enthusiasts should expect that trend to continue.

The article noted, however, that the yearly migration forecasts “are just scientific guesses based on the information we have at the time,” and nature doesn’t always cooperate with the anticipated trends.

SOURCE: PA Game Commission

According to migration figures provided by the game commission, the number of snow geese over the last five years peaked on March 12, 2019, with approximately 150,000 snow geese on the site. That number fell by about 25,000 by the peak date the following year, which was Feb. 20. And the trend continued, with peak numbers of 120,000 snow geese on March 8, 2021; 105,000 on Feb. 25, 2022; and just 79,000 on Jan. 31 of last year.

The number of tundra swans on the lake also fell, from a high of 5,000 in 2019 to just under 2,000 in 2023.

Driving forces that can affect migration numbers include weather and available food sources. While the Middle Creek area provides a safe lake where geese and swans can rest overnight and ample access to local farm fields, the lack of snow and ice in recent years has been bringing them to the area earlier in the season.

“If you pay attention to weather patterns, you know that this year is an El Niño year which means weather patterns change slightly based on warmer ocean temperatures,” the article explains. “As a result, much of the northern U.S. can likely expect a warmer, drier winter this time around. However, The Farmer’s Almanac will tell you that we should expect above-normal snowfall and below-average temperatures.

“Either way, expect the migration to take place over the months of January-March. If we have a dry warmer weather, the migration will be spread out and happen sooner. If its [sic] cold and snowy, the migration will peak over a course of a short few weeks later in February and March.”

Snow geese typically spend their summers at breeding grounds in the Arctic. The 6,254-acre Middle Creek property, which spans southeast Lebanon County and northern Lancaster County, offers a central, 400-acre lake that is a convenient resting point along the way from the southern areas where they spend the winter.

The Visitors Center is open Tuesday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Staff recommend visiting at dawn or sundown, when the geese are roosting on the lake, for the best chances of seeing the largest flocks on the water.

Middle Creek is recognized as a Globally Important Bird Area by BirdLife International and the National Audubon Society, one of only six in the state.

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Tom has been a professional journalist for nearly four decades. In his spare time, he plays fiddle with the Irish band Fire in the Glen, and he reviews music, books and movies for Rambles.NET. He lives with his wife, Michelle, and has four children: Vinnie, Molly, Annabelle and Wolf.


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