ATHENS, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – In October, most of our wintering waterfowl species enter their peak migration period into the state. Some, like Blue-winged Teal, started arriving in August. Others, like Common Goldeneye, aren’t really expected until late November. But the waterfowl species that’s most iconic to us in fall migration are the geese.
There are mainly only four species of geese that migrate to Louisiana: Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons), which are familiarly called “speckled bellies” by waterfowl hunters, Snow Geese (Anser caerulescens) , Ross’s Geese (Anser Rossii) and Cackling Geese (Brant hutchinsii). If you’re thinking I’m forgetting Canada Geese, I’m not. It may surprise you to learn it, but Canada Geese very rarely migrate into Louisiana. The ones we have here are all either feral populations or escapees from farms. Wild Canadas are exceedingly rare in the state.
Of our native geese, the Snow Geese create the true spectacle. They begin arriving here in mid-October, but the big push isn’t actually until the first three weeks of November, so I’m giving you some preparation time if you want to travel within the state to see them. And you really should. It’s not unheard of in South Louisiana to see over 1 million Snow Geese in a single day. Combine Snow Goose sightseeing with a good boudin shop, and you can really enjoy yourself.
Snow Goose numbers in Louisiana and Texas are quite impressive at something around 3 million individuals each year. The total number of Snows, however, is believed to be about 15-16 million. In human terms, that’s equal to the populations of Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi combined. And speaking of that area, Louisiana usually has the largest concentration of snow geese every year.
I took a look at Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count data to get a clear idea of just how many Snow Geese we have during winter. Christmas Bird Counts are conducted once a year from mid-December to early January in repeated locations of 15-mile-diameter circles. In the last 15 years and combining all counts in the state, Louisiana had anywhere from 165,954 to 636,503 Snow Geese found on the counts. And that’s after the numbers from November have died down. Our average over 15 years was 311,857 with a total number of 4,677,852 individuals.
If you want to see single flock of 25,000, 40,000, or even twice that, you can do it right here in the Bayou state. In fact, the record high count for the species in Louisiana is 400,000 birds. So, where do you go, and what do you look for?
To answer the first part, you need a brief ecological history lesson. Nope. Stop yawning. This is enrichment, I promise. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, we didn’t have gillions of Snow Geese. And when they migrated here, they stayed in marshes. But around 30 to 40 years ago, Snow Geese discovered a new treat: rice. In fact, their culinary expansion was so tasty that their population exploded, that they consequently began eating sorghum, wheat, corn, and agricultural grains. I get like that sometimes myself at a good Chinese buffet. Not judging.
What that means is that if you want to find Snow Geese, you go to agricultural lands. think of the Red River Valley, the Mississippi River Valley, and Southwest Louisiana. In these places, you’ll see and likely hear flocks of Snow Geese easily numbering from a few thousand on up flying in strand after strand just af r sunrise from their roosting fields into their breakfast, lunch, and dinner fields. One of the easiest and most guaranteed public spots is the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge’s Pintail Wildlife Drive in Cameron Parish. But you can also see smaller numbers closer to the Ark-La-Tex by driving Highway 1 south from Shreveport.
But you’ll also see some of those other goose species. So, how do you tell the difference? Well, Sn Geese, ahem… “SNOW” Geese are white. And the distal ends of their wings are black. But just to make things interesting, they also come in a completely different color: a slaty blue-gray with a white head and tail and black and white wings. These guys are known as “Blue Geese,” but they’re still the same species, just a different color. And, yes, both colors can be in the same flock.
The only wild goose that looks similar to the Snow Goose, and when seen in Louisiana is usually seen ith flocks of Snow Geese, is the Ross’s Goose. They look identical in plumage, but they’re half the size and mass, about Mallard-sized, actually. They also have a stubbier bill and a sweeter, rounder-looking baby face. But they’re outnumbered by Snows by a considerable margin.
John Dillon is an expert on bird identification. He teaches at Minden High School, has served on the Louisiana Bird Records Committee since 2011, is past president of the Louisiana Ornithological Society, and is a regional reviewer for Cornell University’s www.ebird.org, the largest online database of avian records. For content-related questions, you can email him at email@example.com.
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