Spring Geese

This spring it was hard to miss all the geese in Sitka as they flew honking overhead or fed and rested on lawns and beaches. Based on reported sightings, at least 250 birds visited town, possibly many more. Most are Greater White-fronted Geese, though there were at least one Snow Goose and a handful of Cackling Geese traveling with them. Geese often show up in town in small numbers during their spring migration, but seeing large flocks on the ground is unusual.

The first report of a large flock in town was Friday morning, April 24. A commercial fisherman noted a flock of over 200 geese at the Turnaround and reported it to the Sitka Birds e-mail list. Over the days that followed, there were several more reports from the Turnaround, Totem Park and Starrigavan.

A conversation with Paul Norwood about some observations he made on a recent kayak trip south of town provided a suggestion as to why they showed up like. He mentioned seeing 2000 geese flying north over Biorka Island on Thursday, April 23. He said there was a light Northwest wind at the time, but it strengthened throughout the day, and later there were many smaller flocks flying back from the north in toward land.

Marge Ward and Marlys Tedin said there had been a similar abundance of Greater White-fronted Geese around town in 2002. Thanks to their detailed records, I was able to find the first large flocks were reported on the morning of May first at Swan Lake. A quick check of the weather history revealed there had been a strong Northwest wind blowing most of the previous day.

Given the weather immediately preceding the arrival of geese in 2002 and again this year, a strong Northwest winds provides a plausible explanation for the goose invasion. However, it is not yet clear whether there were other years when the Northwest wind blew during migration and geese did not show up in town. Maybe the cold winter and early spring also played a role. With snow and ice still persisting on even lower elevation lakes, perhaps locations the geese might ordinarily prefer were not available. Or, perhaps the typical migration route for these geese takes them up Chatham Straight or further east along the mainland. It would be interesting to know if large flocks of geese move up the outer coast, flying across the mouth of Sitka Sound most years, only moving into town in years when unfavorable winds push them back.

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