Thursday December 13, 2012

Clellie Lynch

"...some urgent spirits’ honking aloft:

Wild geese there--and my eyes strained after,

Into that azure,

Then, there they were: there

Flying in a straggle, so high a wonder...."

Wild geese flying, Barbara Howes (1914-1996)

EAST CHATHAM, N.Y.

One autumnal afternoon as I walk down the hill towards Ooms Ponds, I hear the familiar honka-honk, honka honk of Canada geese. I turn and discover mini-battalions flying towards me. In they come lower and lower, tossed hither and thither by the brisk wind, like bits of clothing ripped from a clothesline. These birds are piloted by newbies and I await the crash landings.

But as they near the water, each bird twists and turns like sailboats tacking into the wind. Forward come the feet and as smooth as a Sullenberger one after another lands on the water with the merest of a splash. Soon the pond is filled with more than 200 Canada geese, honking and honking. Close your eyes and it sounds like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

I continue my walk and find a flock of 50 or so cedar waxwings their tiny calls drowned out by the noisy geese. A pair of cardinals pop out of the nearby shrubbery. I catch sight of the occasional chickadee and titmouse, but the area is dominated by noisy geese. There’s not one duck to be seen today.


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Only geese galore!

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Canada Geese, Branta canadensis, are those familiar large, brown and white geese with a long black necks and heads graced with a white cheek patch. They are harbingers of spring, but, when we see them flocking and flying south in the fall, they forewarn of snow and ice. Yet more and more, these birds in pairs or small flocks stick around our area until the ponds, lakes and rivers are completely frozen and their feeding fields are buried under snowdrifts. More and more of these birds breed here rather than continue to migrate north into the nesting grounds in the expanses of the Arctic.

This was not always so. In The Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State (1987), the editors point out, with the creation of wildlife refuges and the introduction of breeding pairs to these refuges in the 1930s, that the resident populations of geese has grown by leaps and bounds. Hard to believe that these birds have been breeding in New York state for only 80 years for they are everywhere now.

Back in the 19th century, Canada geese were strictly passers-by. In Birds of Long Island by JP Giraud Jr. (1844), the entire chapter on the Canada goose discusses the importance of these wild geese to hunters, especially during the fall. In the spring, the flocks land in fields and bays, but only for a day or two before continuing their journey north. You would have to be quick and accurate to bag any geese in the spring.

But come the Indian’s Goose Moon, (probably October, same as the Hunter Moon), the bay, shore and field gunners were out in force bagging as many geese as possible for one goose feeds a man a day. Thousands were shot and salted, preserved for food throughout the winter, keeping town and country colonists alive during the lean winter months.

In Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York (1904), Ralph Hoffmann has a one paragraph entry describing Canada geese. He claims that these birds are more often heard than seen, except at the seashore. The early literature states that geese prefer to nest and breed away from humanity, but this is no longer evident as many little ponds and big lakes have their own resident geese waddling in and around houses and cottages. A pair down the road used to nest atop an abandoned beaver house.

Some geese may be afraid of man, but why ever are they not afraid of cars? Driving from New York City to upstate along one of the parkways (Bronx River, Sawmill River, Sprain Brook River) at certain times of the year one has to dodge geese and goslings. Definitely not places conducive to bringing up a family!

Many a disdainful goose has confronted a golf cart that has impinged on his territory. Canada geese have become the bane of golf courses, so much so, that the owners take drastic measures to eliminate what they consider a filthy pest.

Geese were not always considered pests. In ancient times they were considered prophetic. In Rome, the goose was a symbol of fertility and fidelity; in Greece, a symbol of marital love. They have fallen a bit from these lofty attributes...now we have the expressions ‘wild goose chase’ and ‘silly goose,’ a far cry from the symbolism and divination of ancient times.

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The geese at Ooms Pond splish and splash about; occasionally one sits up and flaps his wings as if emphasizing what he is saying. This huge flock looks to be enjoying the afternoon. Soon though, if the temperatures drop, ponds freeze and snow falls, these birds will congregate with other geese and head for warmer climes.

At the sound of faraway honks, look up and see if you can find the skein of wild geese fleeing the cold. Sometimes they do fly in a perfect ‘V’, but more often than not, you’ll see a raggedly check mark flying high above, heading south to they know where. Oliver Wendell Holmes commented, "A goose flies by a chart which the Royal Geographic Society could not mend." But note: If the day is perfectly clear, the birds fly way high up; whereas if it is cloudy, they are much closer to the earth.

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor. Our Berkshires