Friday, January 26, 2007

Snow Goose Blizzard

Even on a gray, blustery day in January, the Ballard Wildlife Management Area teems with life. Near Bandana, KY, about 30 miles west of Paducah, Ballard is owned and operated by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. This 8,400 acre wetland area in the Ohio River flood plain is home to many Kentucky birds, but is a special wintering area for Bald Eagles, Canadian Geese, Snow and Blue Geese, other ducks and waterfowl. Right on the Mississippi flight path, many migrating birds stop here on their way to other places, while others live there year round, including some of the Eagles. The wildlife are primarily managed for hunters, but hunting is prohibited from October 15 to March 15 so the Eagles can nest undisturbed. Charlie Wilkins, manager of the property, gave us the special tour in his newly acquired school bus, which we filled to capacity. This one was an improvement, I understand, because it doesn’t leak gas fumes in with the passengers. The corpses of older abandoned buses sat in the yard when we drove in, looking like hunting trophies. It’s just as well that Charlie drove, though, because I would have gotten lost very quickly among the sloughs, cypress swamps and fields of standing corn and grain. The river is high right now, and Charlie warned us that he would be driving through water over many of the roads. I never did see the pontoons coming out from under the bus to support us when we became amphibian though! A regular car would have been flooded, and the passengers would have to find their own way back to headquarters. Our first exciting view was of five juvenile Bald Eagles perched in the same tree. It seemed that every time we made a turn, we spied more Eagles perched on the tip of dead tree branches. Due to the gray weather conditions, many of my photos came out as silhouettes, but you can still tell they are Eagles. The nest we saw didn’t have any activity, but Charlie assured us the brooding pair would show up any day now. White tail deer bounded across the fields and into the woods as we roared past. I imagine there were ducks too, but we couldn’t see them from the moving vehicle. Any turkeys wisely stayed hidden in the brush.
Finally, we reached the point where Charlie stopped the bus, saying “Look at the snow…”, and he wasn’t talking about cold white flakes falling from the sky. An estimated 60,000 to 70,000 Snow Geese and Blue Geese winter at Ballard, and we must have startled all of them. With the bus motor shut down, we opened the windows to hear the most amazing and very LOUD sound made by so many birds. (Click the link and scroll down the page to hear a recording of these geese.) As they flew up, they banked and turned in unison. The black primary wing feathers made it hard to tell one individual from another in the air. To tell the truth, my immediate impression was to compare these geese with swarms of locusts. They made lots of noise, flying in tight groups and wheeling in unison. In fact, Charlie said they are known for stripping a field down to the bare earth in a short time. Canadian Geese will nip off the top edges of any plants they find, while Snow Geese yank the whole plant out roots and all, so the field is cleaned completely by their passage. Apparently, Blue Geese are just a color variation of the regular white Snow Goose, with a white head and dark body. Both and white and dark babies can come from the same batch of eggs. Canadian Geese will move elsewhere when the Snow Geese arrive. I failed to ask if it is possible to come back another time just to walk around looking at the birds. I certainly wouldn't want a hunter to mistake me for something else, but I would enjoy using binoculars and spotting scope without a bus full of people to lean around.

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