A Mighty Migration

PHOTO BY GARRY BRANDENBURG Snow geese made a grand reappearance this week with tens of thousands of this species of waterfowl. For people on the ground, there were several distinctive honks that were different than our ubiquitous and more familiar Canada geese. When curious people looked up, they may have seen huge flocks of snow geese. Mixed in all of this migration event were smaller groups of white-fronted geese. This is a sure sign that migrating waterfowl know that spring is getting closer. The larger image today is what hundreds of snow geese look like when one looks at them from above. This image was made over Three Bridges County Park last Monday.

SNOW GEESE were everywhere this past week. Any casual observer could hear them. And if you were in the right place with your car, you could see huge flocks plying the air along the Iowa River valley or just about anywhere else even over open farm country. The urge to migrate is so strong that given favorable weather conditions and southerly winds, these long distance birds made the most of it. After all, thousands of mile must be covered by this species from wintering grounds in Texas and other Gulf Coast states to the high arctic tundra were they will nest this summer.

How is it that I was able to get photos above the geese? Well, here is the rest of the story. I am a private pilot in partnership with three others. We keep a Cessna Skyhawk at the Marshalltown airport. Last Monday was a welcome break in the weather with forecast of a significant warming trend. To make matters even better, the weather forecast for the day was perfect.Light winds, cloudless sky, and visibility unlimited. Pilots call that CAVU which stands for Clear, and Visibility Unlimited. I call this a day too good to stay on the ground when a small airplane is an available option. So I took this option to heart and went flying.

I flew north first about 25 miles over southern Hardin and Grundy County. There was a light covering of snow on the ground in those neighborhoods. And the further north I looked, the more snow I could see. I could easily see over 40 miles as the horizon was crisp and clear. All the recent snow events of northwest Iowa were quite apparent. Snow pack on the ground was obviously much thicker in all areas to the northwest. But snow covered lands was not my destination.

I turned the nose of the aircraft southeast and proceeded to Otter Creek Marsh in Tama County. It did not take long to see snow geese flying even well before the marsh came into view. I was safe and well above them. The geese were cruising much lower along the Iowa River, its timbered tracts and adjacent farm fields. Soon I arrived over the still iced over pools of the DNR’s 3,000 plus acres of Otter Creek Marsh. Below me were lot of white geese playing follow the leader as many long overlapping V formations followed in trail.

Now headed westerly toward Marshalltown at 3,000 feet altitude, occasional flocks of geese seemed to be always in sight. Then as I neared Three Bridges County Park, several very large flocks of snow geese were cutting a pathway over the river. That is when I made a lot of images from my high altitude vantage point. Today’s large image shows the old river bridge at Three Bridges Park in the lower left with river ice still intact downstream. All the little white winged dots you see in this image are snow geese, hundreds of them in fact. I could not zoom my camera lens back enough to capture the entire spectacle. It is not an exaggeration to say that there were hundreds of thousands of snow geese, Canada geese and white-fronted geese just over Marshall County earlier this week. Keep in mind that there are more geese still to come. What we witnessed this week is just the beginning of a phenomenal natural history story. I hope you have a chance, or make the time to get outdoors and see for yourself. A mighty migration season is beginning again. Enjoy.

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SNOW GEESE come in two color phases. One is all white with black primary wing tip feathers. The other color variant is sometimes called “blue” but this is due to its grayer body plumage. Both color phases can come from the same nest. The gray bodied snow goose does have a white head plumage arrangement identical to its nest mates. The difference in plumage colors is controlled by a single gene. If two all white snow geese mate, their offspring will be white. Likewise if two of the darker ” blue phase” geese mate, their goslings will end up being mostly gray but a few all white nest mates is possible.

Snow geese as a species have become one of the most abundant types of waterfowl on the North American Continent. In fact the huge numbers of these birds has allowed the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service to allow for a spring light goose hunting season. Even with the take of many snow geese during their northward journey, not enough snow geese are taken by hunters to make a significant dent in the overall population.

Snow geese goslings are well developed when hatched with eyes open and down covered bodies to keep them warm. Within a few days, their bodies are able to maintain a constant temperature. Insect diets and some vegetation provide nutrition for these fast growing birds. During the long 18-hour days in the high arctic, feeding can be a continual process. While still growing and not yet able to fly, the goslings may travel long distances, as much as 50 miles, by following the parent birds on a long walk toward safer brood raising habitat. At the edges of any snow goose flock are birds serving as lookouts for predators.

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WATERFOWL enthusiasts are welcome to attend the upcoming March 17 DUCKS UNLIMITED banquet. It will be located at the Impala Ballroom in Marshalltown. Banquets to raise money for conservation organizations is a nation-wide endeavor. Just the funds from hunting and fishing license sales is a good start but never enough. Private groups like DU can be a tremendous assistance to state conservation agencies when publicly derived funds are able to be matched with private dollars for projects. To help in the effort for wetland conservation, consider attending this DU function. Call Rich Naughton at (641) 328-0124 for tickets.

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TIP of IOWA is an organization formed in 1985 to assist conservation law enforcement officers with information concerning illegal taking or illegal methods being used by some folks who do not want to or blatantly disregard wildlife laws and regulations. Anonymous tips of information could be called to a state dispatch number any day, at any time regarding illegal actions. That information is forwarded to the game warden in the vicinity who will follow up and investigate. Like pieces of a large complex puzzle, a tip may be the missing link in a larger case, or just enough information to allow the warden to make a case, write a citation or make an arrest. When the officer submits his successful case to the board of directors of TIP of IOWA, a cash award may be authorized to the tipster. Many time the reward offered is declined with the statement “I just wanted the bad guy to know law abiding hunters and fishermen are watching.”

A recent court case in western Iowa resulted in an Arizona man being found guilty in trial held Feb. 12. He killed deer in Iowa at Lake Manawa State Park near Council Bluffs on Nov. 16, 2016. He was cited for numerous violations, seven charges total. TIP of IOWA was of assistance in this case. A total of $7,243 is both fines and liquidating damages were court assigned. In addition, the poacher was suspended from being able to purchase any hunting license in Iowa for three years. This suspension is also in effect in each of the 34 other state conservation agencies that are participants in the Wildlife Compact Agreement.

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NATIONAL PARKS are one option if you need postage stamps. This scribe purchased a sheet of stamps recently because of the beautiful artwork or photography of American natural settings. The National Park System has been around since 1916, one hundred and two years ago. The first national park was Yellowstone was set aside in 1872 as one of the crown jewels of America. We now have many other fantastic national parks, monuments, seashores, scenic rivers, urban parks, recreation areas, historic buildings and homes for the public to utilize. If you add them all up, the list is over 400 sites long. What a treasure.

Also on the treasure list are each State’s State Parks, and locally in Iowa we have a fantastic array of county conservation public lands which contain some very nice ‘close-to-home’ parks for outdoor recreation. This year you can make your own “Mighty Migration” as you travel. Seek out any number of these natural settings as destinations in themselves or as places to see on the way to and from other vacation sites. You have all of 2018 to get there. Enjoy you migration.


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 PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.