By JEREMY COX
The Daily Times of Salisbury
CHURCH CREEK, Md. (AP) — Larry McGowan drives up to a marsh-ringed lake in his government-issued SUV and kills the engine before it has finished rolling to a stop. Within a few moments, a flock of Canada geese wings into view, flying low toward another flock already on the water.
“Let’s see what they do,” whispers McGowan, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lifer with a mustache too big for his upper lip and an outsized yen for waterfowl.
“Yeah,” he says, as the birds suddenly swoop toward the surface of Blackwater Lake, “they’re going to land.”
Such displays are common this time of year, he adds: “You’ll see them rolling and doing these acrobatics. It’s like they’re happy to be here.”
If true, there are about to be a lot more happy geese at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Cooling temperatures of October and November herald their annual return from summer breeding grounds in the northern reaches of the Canadian province of Quebec.
Flying in their iconic “V” patterns, the first flocks of the season began arriving about two weeks ago at the southern Dorchester County refuge, McGowan said.
The number of Canada geese is expected to show no major dips or leaps at the refuge this year, he said. As many as 12,000 to 15,000 usually can be spotted at the peak of wintering in December and January.
The Atlantic population of geese, one of four distinct North American groupings, was in a long slide until a six-year ban on hunting on both sides of the border in the late-1990s enabled their numbers to rebound.
In June, Canadian and U.S. wildlife officials counted 190,000 breeding pairs along Quebec’s Ungava Peninsula, said Bill Harvey, game-bird section leader at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and an American envoy on the counts. The total was lower than last year’s 216,000 but still within the margin of error.
Some may be lingering in the upper latitudes, but colder weather is beginning to push them south, Harvey said. Many wait to take advantage of a steady, northwest wind to save energy on the long flight.
They travel as far south as North Carolina, stopping at inviting places like the Blackwater refuge to forage and rest, Harvey said.
Refuge managers make it even more enticing by growing clover, wheat and corn specifically for them and other waterfowl.
Though far outnumbered by resident Canada geese, which have become a nuisance, the migratory geese are a staple of life on the Shore. They are so ingrained that the famed novelist James A. Michener devoted an entire chapter of his 1978 book “Chesapeake” to the plight of a family of Canadian geese and its patriarch, “Onk-or.”
“Whether you hunt or not, that’s an important part of living around here,” Harvey said of the geese.
While the Mid- and Upper Shore attract greater numbers of geese, the refuge offers the winter travelers a 27,000-acre respite from the threat of hunting rifles. The only shooting here belongs to high-speed, digital cameras.
Greg Crites and Steve Andersen have morphed from work buddies to photo friends over chilly mornings at the refuge. Every few weeks or so during birding season, Andersen gets up at 3:30 a.m. to drive from his home in Littlestown, Pa., to Crites’ in Hanover, Md., and the two men travel the last 87 miles to the refuge together.
“This is what I look forward to — early spring and the fall,” said Crites on Thursday morning as he and Andersen stood atop the earthen dike that is the refuge’s Wildlife Drive.
Crites prefers to train his enormous zoom lens on bald eagles and harrier hawks — not Canada geese. “I grew up in North Dakota,” he said, “and we have millions of them up there.”
For his part, Andersen said he’s fond of waiting for the moment when a flock takes off from the water, their webbed feet skimming the surface.
The distinctive honking calls of the geese could be heard across the refuge that morning as McGowan steered his way from one end to the other. If he weren’t taking the trip for the sake of a visitor, he said, he’d probably be doing it later anyway.
“Some nights after work, I just drive slow out here,” he said. “It’s so peaceful and beautiful.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)