When the talk turns to snow geese, most North Carolina hunters immediately think about a long trip to the great plains of North Dakota, Nebraska, Texas, Manitoba or any of the other states and provinces along the central flyway.
While these locations are major layovers on the Central Flyway, North Carolina hunters don’t need to go farther than the northeastern corner of the state to keep from missing out on the action. Several hundred thousand snow geese overwinter between December and March from Hyde County north to the Virginia border. And for once, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has pulled out all of the stops and declare war on this massive snow goose flock to contain the population growth.
According to John Stanton, a biologist with the USFWS, the population of snow geese across the continent has dramatically increased.
“The snow goose population, flock-wide, has been increasing for the last 30 years and more in recent years along the Atlantic Flyway,” he said. “North Carolina is seeing the same increases that mirror the population increases continent-wide.”
In its 2015 Waterfowl Status Report, the USFWS estimated a population of 818,000 snow geese utilizing the Atlantic Flyway, nearly triple the number from 25 years ago.
So why is having nearly a million snow geese a problem? While some local issues involving the destruction of agricultural crops are reported, the major problem is destruction of the Canadian breeding grounds and competition with other waterfowl species for breeding space that is already in decline.
“When snows expand their habitat grounds, they have to compete with food with other geese, goslings and some sea ducks on the breeding grounds. Also, the geese are eating up all of the natural sedges and destroying the natural plant communities in the arctic. These are fragile communities that take many years to re-establish,” Stanton said.
While greater snow geese are known to short-stop in Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia, data indicates that large wintering flocks sail into North Carolina as the final destination along their southern migratory route.
“North Carolina is the proven southern terminus for large-bodied geese and swans,” Stanton said. “Eastern North Carolina provides excellent wintering habitat for geese, with a perfect combination of vast, undisturbed land and massive grain crops in close proximity to wetlands.”
Charlton Thornton, aka Captain Froggy, operates Captain Froggy’s Guide Service; he goes to war on snow geese during the winter conservation season — it’s Feb. 15-March 31 this year, coming on the heels of the standard Oct. 13-Feb. 13 season. He makes every effort to make a dent in the snow goose population by hunting every day of the season. Last winter alone, his clients killed more than 600 snows.
While big flocks of snow geese winter in Hyde and Tyrell Counties, he concentrates on the massive flocks wintering in the counties between the Albemarle Sound and the Virginia border.
“The big flocks roost in our nearby sounds at night and will go into the hundreds of acres of wheat fields to eat during the day,” said Thornton (252-661-7222). “We get permission and set up in the active-growing wheat fields.”
According to Thornton, a significant investment is required to get enough white, shell decoys on the ground to encourage a flock of 20,000 geese to set their wings within shooting range of his hunters. Most of the time, he deploys more than 1,000 decoys at a time.
“It takes a mass of decoys to draw them in. At a minimum, you must have at least 500 decoys to get them to even take a look at you,” he said, explaining that he sets his decoys up to mimic a massive flock of feeding geese and arranges them so birds on in range when they make their final approach into the spread.
Typically, snow geese will bunch up tight in certain areas in a field but will extend across a large area in a linear fashion. Thornton will set up his decoys to mimic these natural feeding stances.
“We put a lot of decoys tight around where we are sitting and then spread them out, running long strings. We will leave a landing zone in the shape of a ‘V’ or a hole in a place to encourage the incoming geese to land,” he said.
Geese want to first land somewhere they feel safe, and a hole next to the largest concentrations of birds is where they want to first drop their feet. Throughout the season, Thornton mix up his decoy configurations somewhat to make sure the geese don’t get accustomed to seeing the same set-up.
Snow geese have excelled at breeding and survival, the latter by always traveling in huge flocks. According to Stanton, they are long-lived waterfowl with the capacity to learn from bad experiences.
“Data from the bird-banding lab indicates snow geese can live over 15 years in the wild,” Stanton said. “No doubt, older waterfowl can remember and guide the younger recruitment flock away from dangerous situations.”
Guides will set up their massive spreads in the wee hours of the morning in the most-likely place geese will want to come in to feed, but knowing which wheat field to set up it can be tricky. Thornton tracks a half-dozen flocks throughout the season in the areas he hunts.
“When some of us are hunting, others are riding around and scouting,” he said. “We have to find a new place each day because when you shoot them one day, that field is done, and you must find a new place to get on them the next day.”
Besides huge numbers, the plastic flock must not only look good, but sound good. During the conservation season, hunters are allowed to use electronic calls through large speakers that imitate emulate big flocks of feeding geese on the ground. According to Thornton, being able to use electronic calls is just what the doctor ordered to get these birds to commit.
Snow geese can be tough to kill. In order for hunters to get flocks within shotgun range, there are several key ingredients — a simple formula to a veteran waterfowler.
“To kill snow geese, you must be in the right spot, use lots of decoys, and you need plenty of battery power to run the electronic caller for several hours,” Thorton said.