ADDISON — The numbers of snow geese making annual stops at Addison’s Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area have dropped dramatically in the past decade, according to a Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department official who staffs the site.
This fall, the count of snow geese at the Route 17 location peaked at about 2,500, said department wildlife biologist David Sausville. That’s down from roughly 7,500 in 2006 and 2007 and from an estimated 20,000 in the year 2000.
Instead, Sausville said, more snow geese are congregating in corn stands in southern Canada and northern Vermont and New York.
“They’re going where the food is available,” Sausville said.
Changing — and more efficient — farming practices around the Addison refuge are limiting the amount of waste grains that hungry geese can find, he said. Farmers are plowing those grains back into their fields faster.
Simply put, Sausville said, both farmers and snow geese are getting smarter.
“Everyone’s adapting ... They (the geese) are just going where they can eat at this point,” he said.
The region remains a crucial way station for geese as they migrate from their summer homes near the James and Hudson bays in Canada, typically on the Ungava Peninsula, and their winter homes on fields near Chesapeake Bay.
In fact, Sausville said he and other biologists are concerned that although fewer snow geese are stopping in Addison, the species is nearing a dangerous population level of an estimated 2 million, about four times what experts consider the ideal amount.
The geese are laying more eggs and more birds are surviving migration, he said. The problem is their summer tundra habitat may not be able to sustain that large a flock. The situation may lead to a population crash not only of snow geese, but also of plovers, Canada geese and turnstones.
“They’re damaging the natural ecosystem in the tundra to the point it’s not recovering,” Sausville said.
Meanwhile, the decline in snow geese visiting Addison coincides with the state’s investment to enhance bird fanciers’ viewing experience. In the late 1990s, the state built a dirt road parallel to and south of Route 17 to allow watchers to get out and look at the birds. That area was further enhanced and a viewing stand added about seven or eight years ago.
But Sausville said birdwatchers can still put those improvements, and a nearby access road that runs south from Route 17 along Dead Creek, to good use.
For one thing, about 500 snow geese are still on the site and can best be seen from roughly 7 to 9 a.m. or 4 to 6 p.m. He expects, as its typical, some will remain until early November.
“We’ll be having birds until November. As long as the water’s unfrozen and there’s food in the fields, they’ll stay around,” Sausville said.
And there’s more to see, including other species of waterfowl, wading birds (including great blue herons), ospreys, possibly bald eagles and many other birds.
“You just have to look a little harder for the camouflaged birds instead of the white ones,” Sausville said.