Snow goose banded on Baffin Island

OPEN WATER in every area pond, lake and stream is a potential draw for migrating birds of all sizes. A place like Green Castle will gets its share of ducks, geese, shorebirds and other passerine species over the next two months. The migration is in full swing for many birds. Some migrate early, others next month and finally during May, an entire array of neo-tropical birds will arrive or pass through.

My backyard bird feeder has seen a normal sprinkling of species including Red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, robins, mourning doves, ring-necked doves, a Cooper’s Hawk in search of a bird snack, and cardinals, blue jays, juncos, hairy, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatch, brown creeper, goldfinch, house finch, and the ever present house sparrow and European starling. These feathered critters are entertaining at times and always adding a colorful treat to the winter landscape.

Look for lots of new arrivals anytime as warm weather and southerly winds assist migrating birds.

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SNOW GEESE are long range migrators. The following story is true, an example of science working to help understand where snow geese travel. Here is how this story brings it all together. Troy Long and his father Gary Long of Marshalltown traveled to south-central Iowa’s Ringgold County on March 9th to hunt snow geese. The light goose season is open every spring in part to allow hunters the opportunity to harvest some of these over-abundant waterfowl.

While at the Ringgold County hunt area, they worked lots of snow geese and finally did get some groups to commit to close range over the decoys. The duo took ten geese that day and to their surprise, one goose had a leg band. The leg band numbers were duly noted and reported to authorities. The results were very interesting. The official Certificate of Appreciation sent to Troy told the history of this goose. It was a Lesser Snow Goose that was banded on Aug. 8, 2013 along the west coast of Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada. It was a male bird that was hatched in 2012 or perhaps earlier. The bander was Jim Leafloor of the Canadian Wildlife Service. He is based out of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

So, this Lesser Snow Goose was at least five years old, perhaps more, and has made at least five round trip migrations from Baffin Island to winter habitat along the gulf coast of Texas. That is a one-way distance of 2,200 miles, or 4,400 miles per round trip. Multiply 4,400 by 5 (or more) and you can quickly see the long distances this bird has made. One has to add lots of additional miles to the above estimates just to cover the logistics of incidental flights at nesting grounds or wintering areas.

Baffin Island can be found between Greenland and the Canadian mainland. It is the largest Island in Canada with a land area of 195,928 square miles. It is basically straight north of Hudson Bay. The island has a mountainous backbone as long as the island’s 950 mile length. Some of the peaks rise to 7,000 feet or more. It is largely uninhabited except for a few coastal settlements holding about 11,000 people. Iqaluit is the capital of Nunavut located on the southeast coast. There is archaeological evidence that people and traders knew of this island for several hundreds of years before Vikings explorations.

Year round wildlife on Baffin includes Barren-ground caribou, population estimates peg them at about 5,000. Polar bears are found along all the coastlines and especially along areas where ocean pack ice forms allowing the bears to venture out to hunt ringed and bearded seals. Polar bears of Baffin on one of nineteen distinct circumpolar bear populations. Arctic foxes like to follow polar bears to clean up any morsels of seal left behind. Arctic hares can be found anywhere on this land mass, as well as lemmings. Artic wolves and snowy owls live off the surplus of lemmings and hares. Wolves living here do not hunt in packs and are typically have white fur. Walrus and Beluga whales ply the shorelines in the summer. So do narwhals, the whale with a long single tusk-like tooth. Migrating birds to Baffin include snow geese as previously mentioned, Canada geese, brant geese, phalaropes, various wading birds (sandpipers), plovers, and glaucous, herring and ivory gulls.

Baffin Islands wind almost always blow from north to south year round. It is an extremely cold place to exist. Spring thaw in the Southeast is mid-June. In the north the thaw does not arrive until mid-July. The very short “summer” is mid-July to early August. The average annual temperature is about 15 degrees. Snow geese find this environment to their liking, with just enough time to make nests, raise young and have them grow fast enough to accompany the flocks south just in time to avoid the harsh realities of Baffin’s winter. Maybe we can’t blame snow geese for flying to Texas for the winter to eat rice, grow fat and healthy, and prepare to do the migration routine all over again. Someday somewhere, another snow goose will be shot by a hunter and they may discover a story similar to what I have just told you.

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Here is another true story from Nunavat. On May 21, 2014, two native hunters were attacked by a Polar Bear. The men were in their tent when a polar bear invited itself inside. A struggle between men and beast was terrifying at least. One man used his only weapon at hand, a pocket-knife to repeatedly stab at the bear while the other man scrambled to get his rifle. The rifleman was able to shoot the bear repeatedly which diverted the bear’s attention from the first victim. The bear released his grip and ran outside where continued rifle shots finally killed the bear. Victim No. 1 had to have more than 50 stitches. The rifleman sustained a broken collar bone and other puncture wounds. Authorities gave the bear pelt to the hunters as compensation. The hunters hope to sell the hide for the going rate … about $7,000. It is legal for the Nunavat people to do this.

The Nunavat residents know polar bears. They know the populations of these big white predators are doing quite well. This is in stark contrast to misinformed and politically correct folks in the lower 48 that think every polar bear is a cute and cuddly fur ball. To quote realists that must live close to these bears all the time, “they are just sizing you up so they can eat your face.”

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The same goes for black bears in Florida where a garbage eating bear was found in a woman’s garage. The woman had been outside checking on her grandchildren’s riding bikes and when she returned home, was attacked. She survived with multiple stitches and staples holding her together. Further north, a black bear in the oil sands region of Alberta, Canada attacked a female employee who was checking out pumping stations. She died in May of 2014.

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I was recently reminded of our North American Grizzly bear and the encounter Lewis and Clark had over 200 years ago with a grizzly while on their upstream journey on the Missouri River. The party of explorers ran for their lives, jumping into the Missouri River while other party members fired their rifles at the beast. Finally, after nine shots, a lucky brain shot stopped the charging bear. There is good reason the scientific name was initially Ursus horribilus. It does not take much to denote the Latin word horiibilus to our modern term horrible. Scientists have since renamed the grizzly Ursus arctos.

It may be hard to know if Frederic Remington, an 1850’s cowboy and a keen-eyed artist, actually witnessed a bear roping escapade, but surely the embellishments over time could add lots of color to any chance encounter and roping of a grizzly bear. Another cowboy artist, Charles M. Russell, painted scenes showing cowboys roping a grizzly bear. With two cowboys holding a stretched out bear between them, the question now becomes what are they going to do next? My guess is that the bear’s life was ended with a well placed rifle shot.

However, let’s imagine for a moment a different scenario. Cowboys like to brand stray livestock so that ownership goes to the ranch that owns the rights to that brand. A camp fire and a red hot branding iron well placed on the rump of an already very mad grizzly bear is not going to make the bear any less angry. It would take one very brave cowboy to approach the bear to place the sizzling hot mark on the bear’s back side. What next? Branded cattle or calves are untied an allowed to run back to the herd. Who is going to untie the ropes from a very mad grizzly? Cowboy number one wants cowboy number two to do the honors. Cowboy number two has a different idea and thinks number one cowboy has been swallowing too much of his tobacco chew. So they agree that maybe plan B is a better option. I’m sure they did not call it plan B, but rather had to think a bit of how to safely get away from a grizzly bear bent on killing them if given any opportunity. Let’s say they agree to use their knives, and on the count of three, simultaneously cut their ropes and ride away as fast as their horses can take them, leaving the bear to its own destiny. If those cowboys did escape with their lives, I theorize they are still riding hard to put all the distance they can between them and one very mad grizzly bear.

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Reminders of Banquets this weekend: DUCKS UNLIMITED meets at the Impala Ballroom in Marshalltown on Saturday, March 25. Tickets are obtainable from Rich Naughton by calling him at 641-328-0124. Wetland conservation helps all kinds of wildlife. Support DU.

Tama County’s FUN NIGHT is also on the 25th. The place is at Otter Creek Lake Park. A Ding Darling impersonator will present the program. An auction and great food await. Call Bob Etzel at 641-484-2231 for ticket availability.

Iowa’s TAXIDERMY ASSOCIATION will host a meeting at the Regency Inn at Marshalltown. Public hours to view artistic displays is from 12-5 p.m. on Saturday, March 25. Admission is free. Vote for the people’s choice award.

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“The best lessons are lived, not taught.”

— Unknown

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Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at P.O. Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.