Last weekend, most of Pennsylvania enjoyed unseasonably bright and balmy weather for mid-February. In the northern corner of Lancaster County, however, I experienced a snowstorm of awesome proportions last Sunday afternoon.
That snow wasn't the cold, wet white stuff we're all usually tired of by now, but rather tens of thousands of the big, white birds, commonly known as snow geese, that stop over at the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area as they begin their northward migration this time of year.
Located on the Lebanon/Lancaster county line, this 6,254-acre project was created in 1973 by the Pennsylvania Game Commission as a management area for waterfowl. The centerpiece of the project is a 756-acre propagation area that surrounds a 400-acre manmade lake.
The propagation area is a sanctuary set aside for nesting waterfowl where neither hunting nor any other human is activity permitted. That small percentage of land set aside as a refuge produces incredible benefits for all kinds of wildlife, both game and non-game species alike.
The annual migration of snow geese has become a signature event for Middle Creek in recent years. A few hundred to 1,500 of the big white birds began showing up there during the late 1970s to the 1990s.
Middle Creek became a phenomenon in 1995 when an estimated 50,000 snow geese appeared. Since then, as many as 100,000 to 150,000 of these birds descend on the project annually during their spring migration, providing wildlife watchers with the opportunity to view this unique natural spectacle. Thousands of tundra swans have also made Middle Creek a part of their migration route.
On the day I was there, an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 snow geese and 1,500 tundra swans were present at Middle Creek.
The mild winter and plenty of open water throughout the region seems to have the birds spread out a little more than usual, but even those numbers are breathtaking to see, especially when several thousand of them spontaneously take to the air at once.
In addition to all the geese and swans, I saw a nice assortment of ducks, including widgeons, gadwalls, ring-necked ducks, black ducks, buffleheads, mallards and hooded mergansers. Through binoculars, I was able to view one of the project's bald eagles that was already on a nest, and another birder on site gave me a peek at a golden eagle that she had located with her spotting scope.
Most years, late February through early March is the best time to view the invasion of snow geese at Middle Creek, so we are probably nearing the peak of the viewing opportunity right now. If you are interested in seeing it for yourself, the Game Commission provides a wealth of information on their website (pgc.pa.state.us), including daily reports of the numbers of geese and swans present at Middle Creek.
And a good pair of binoculars is a must, as well as a bird field guide if you are not familiar with most species of ducks and waterfowl.
Anyone going to Middle Creek for the first time should plan to stop at the modern visitor center there, which is an attraction in itself. Hundreds of mounted specimens of waterfowl, other birds and mammals, along with numerous museum-like displays throughout the building, are well worth seeing.
The information desk at the center is always staffed with folks who can answer questions and provide information on current wildlife viewing opportunities. Maps and other free literature are also available to help you get the most from your time at the management area. The visitor center is open Tuesday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m., and Sunday, from noon-5 p.m. It's closed Mondays.
For those who would like to see some of the photos of snow geese I took while at Middle Creek last weekend, I will give a presentation Thursday at the Hollidaysburg Public Library on the topic at 11 a.m.
The presentation will feature many of my favorite photographs of springtime wildflowers, birds and butterflies, and I will also include a selection of images I captured at Middle Creek last weekend. The event is free and open to the public.