Next time you see a flock of big white birds flying overhead or spot a group of gulls or Canadian geese swimming in a salt marsh with big white birds, take time to take a closer look. Just maybe those big white birds are snow geese.
As temperatures warm, daylight increases and ground thaws up north, snow geese are beginning to think about another breeding season. Soon they will start a long spring migration to summer breeding grounds in faraway wetlands found on Arctic tundra across North America to northwest Greenland. It’s a journey of over 3,000 miles just from New York Harbor.
Snow goose migrations, both fall and spring, are some of the longest migrations in the bird world in terms of distance and time, especially for a big bird. Snow geese often depart their wintering areas sometime around mid-March or April to arrive in breeding sites by mid to late May, depending on snow conditions. Once the breeding season has completed sometime around mid to late August, the birds once again fly south for the winter.
The nearest major wintering home for snow goose relative to New York Harbor is at Forsythe National Wildlife Refugee in New Jersey, near Atlantic City. Tens of thousands of geese have been known to frequently gather here every winter starting around October.
As those geese and others from overwintering areas farther south in marshes of Delaware, Virginia and North Carolina begin to travel, they will sometimes stopover in New York Harbor for a break from a lengthy winged migration. The geese will frequently stay in open areas like large grassy meadows in parks and protected saltwater wetlands to feed on plant material, such as sedges, seeds, and many species of wild grasses, either by walking in shallow waters or on land.
Some of the best locations I recommend of seeing flocks of snow geese during spring migration are at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens, Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, and Sandy Hook in New Jersey, all part of Gateway National Recreation Area and the National Park System. The geese don’t show up every year, sometimes none at all or just a few. No one is certain why the birds appear or do not appear, but generally it’s about food. When food sources are just right, snow goose sightings can be plentiful.
Migration to a large degree is about food. Animals need energy to fuel a long journey, so snow geese will stop in places where they can find the most food the easiest, without spending much energy getting to that food. It helps as well to find places where there is adequate protection from people, which is not always easy in the people rich New York metropolitan region.
If all else fails, just look up. As snow geese embark on their northerly migration to arctic nesting grounds, a few flocks always seem to fly over New York Harbor every year. The birds you see are often following a route along the eastern seaboard. Many will eventually land and breed in Bylot Island, a migratory bird sanctuary located at the northern tip of Baffin Island in Canada. This remote island has the largest breeding colony of snow geese in the Canadian High Arctic. Another important breeding area is the Thule District in northwest Greenland, between Melville Bay in the south and the Humboldt Glacier in the north.
Once a pair of snow geese is nesting, a female will lay four to six white eggs. The mother will incubate the eggs for around 24 days. Newly hatched chicks will feed on vegetation. They will fledge in little over 30 days and migrate with parents to overwintering sites down south. Juveniles are generally mature enough to start their own family in two to three years. A snow goose typical lives for about eight years.
With snow geese numbers increasing over its range, the chances of seeing a flock flying around New York Harbor or even staying for a awhile to feed this spring is pretty good. For me, I love seeing them and hope snow geese will continue to fly around New York Harbor for years to come.