Thank Mother Nature that they’re finally here — flying in as a great fluttering mass on the chin of the warm southern air.
At noon or a little after, open your windows as you enter Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge and you will hear the low, rumbling roar of their collective wings and voices before you see them.
It’s not a few or even a few hundred thousand, but more than1 million
of the geese with their black-tipped wings, covering close to 1,000 acres of the refuge’s open waters in a great, bobbing blanket of white as big as Roeland Park.
Then, pestered perhaps by bald eagles or cued by some prompt known only to them, thousands will take flight, sweeping in a wave across the water or lifting up, circling in a spinning, squawking vortex that reaches hundreds of feet into the air. The roar grows louder.
Meanwhile, 5 miles away in the center of tiny Mound City, Mo., the smiles grow broader.
“If it weren’t for there being snow geese,” Jerry Diggs, the 71-year-old owner of Quackers Steakhouse, said sitting with his two buddies, all dressed in camouflage hunting gear, “I would lock the door and toss away the key right now.”
Retailers rely on Black Friday. Beach towns make their financial nut from the Fourth of July to Labor Day.
In Mound City, some 90 miles north of Kansas City, they have the snow geese. Ever since their spring migration numbers first topped 1 million in March 2008, they have become an economic boon for this small community and others in Holt County.
At the 43-room Mound City Super 8 — booked through March — clerk Nancy Cherry hung up the phone.
“Big deal? It’s a very big deal,” said Cherry, 48.
When the birds come, so do sales across the county of food, gas, lodging and alcohol.
“The man I was just talking to is from Anchorage. He’ll be here this afternoon,” she said. “We have people here from Mississippi, Wisconsin, California. We’ve actually had them in here from Australia. When it’s snow geese season, we could add another wing to the hotel.”
Arrival of the snow geese is so important that Ron Bell, who for 27 years has managed Squaw Creek for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said he recently was approached by local residents concerned that this year’s icy weather had kept the wetlands frozen too long and kept the geese away.
“They wanted to bring over heaters and thaw the ice,” Bell said this week, laughing. He turned the offer down.
Last year, the million-plus birds had flown up from Louisiana, Texas and Mexico by mid-February. But even 10 days ago, 95 percent of Squaw Creek’s 3,400 acres of wetlands were thick with ice.
Because of a brief warm spell, some 19,000 geese were counted Feb. 19. It seemed hopeful.
Six days later, only six.
On March 5, wildlife biologist Darrin Welchert counted two lonely geese.
But just over a week ago, the weather turned warmer. Welchert, who performs the count using binoculars and a system of grids and extrapolation, watched the count go from two geese to 50,000 by the morning of March 7.
“It built up to 750,000 by 4 p.m.,” Welchert said.
The official count earlier this week: nearly1.2 million.
“They stay here for about, oh, two weeks,” Welchert said.
As waters thaw to the north, they move on. The longest they have ever stayed is a month.
When they arrive at Squaw Creek, people follow.
A 2013 Fish and Wildlife Service report estimates that tourists to the refuge — which has free admission and brings close to 300,000 visitors annually — add about $2.6 million to the economies of Holt and nearby Buchanan County. Hunting is prohibited on the 7,500-acre refuge, but not in the surrounding corn fields where the geese feed.
The vast majority of the visitors are sightseers like Ren Sonne, 40, a recent transplant from New York City, and her friend Michelle McMullen, 43, of Liberty, who drove up from Kansas City.
“I think it’s beautiful,” said Sonne, staring awestruck at the blanket of white and sometimes grayish blue that seemed to stretch to the horizon.
Bell, the refuge manager, said that even before the snow geese began arriving in such great numbers, Squaw Creek still drew about 200,000 visitors a year, many to see nearly 300 bald eagles that come in December. Pelicans and trumpeter swans arrive in November.
With the increase in geese, the refuge has seen a different kind of migration: television crews.
“We’ve had people from Japan, from Germany and all different places in Europe,” Welchert said as his pickup passed a film crew from Great Britain shooting footage for the BBC.
“We had one guy from Japan. He flew over into Kansas City airport. He didn’t even rent a car. He had a taxicab bring him to the refuge.”
Then there are the hunters — an estimated several thousand sportsmen who, for the short time the birds are around, join hundreds of local and regional hunters, packing hotels and restaurants.
They are guys like Scott Butz, 46, who came down from Fargo, N.D., for a spate of hunting with the cast and crew of a cable hunting program, “Avian-X,” who had driven all night from Ohio and Kentucky.
Industrial contractor Ken Kryzak, 62, drove more than 20 hours from Altamont, N.Y., near Albany, with hunting buddies and co-workers. One reason he came, he said, was to visit his veterinarian daughter who lives near Manhattan, Kan.
But he also came because a Missouri friend who now leaves near Albany had told them about the massive migration.
Kryzak had started to think it was a Missouri tall tale. The whole drive out, he said, he didn’t see a single snow goose. Nor did he see one on the trip from his daughter’s place to St. Joseph.
“I was thinking, ‘What a waste of time. This is crap,’
” said Kryzak.
But then on Sunday, his Missouri friend Bill DeClue, 44, brought him over to Squaw Creek.
“Stunned,” Kryzak said Tuesday. “Crazy. It’s just insane. I’ve never seen so many birds. He made a believer out of us.”
Because hunting is not allowed on the refuge, the sportsmen hire field guides for upward of $175 per person per day to hunt in the stubble of corn fields that surround the refuge for miles. The guides lease hunting rights from farmers.
Squaw Creek has been getting so many snow geese, experts say, because, like deer, they are vastly overpopulated and have been for at least 15 years.
“Their numbers have increased exponentially over the last 20 years, maybe longer than that,” said Doreen Mengel, a waterfowl biologist and resource scientist for the Missouri Department of Conservation out of Columbia.
There’s no one reason the population has boomed, she said, but the general thinking is it involves a change in their winter food.
Whereas the birds in the fall used to fly from as far north as the upper arctic all the way down through the center of the United States to feed on roots and tubers and other plants around the Gulf Coast, the birds now feed on plentiful agricultural crops, Mengel said.
They have grown stronger and healthier, with fewer deaths.
Joel Ingram, head of population management for the Canadian Wildlife Service, said in a telephone interview that the number of snow geese has tripled or even quintupled to 15 million over the last 30 or 40 years.
The problem is, he said, they are voracious eaters that are grazing and grubbing their own mating habitat down to nothing.
“The full extent of the damage isn’t known across the arctic,” Ingram said.
The change in the ecosystem already has shown to have a negative impact on insects, birds such as nesting sandpipers, and small mammals like voles and lemmings.
To curb the numbers, geese since the late 1990s have been under an annual “conservation order.”
In Missouri, that means that after the normal snow goose hunting season ends Jan. 31, hunters from Feb. 1 to April 30 can bag as many geese as they can hit.
Given the numbers, that may seem easy. At his steakhouse, Diggs proudly points out a photograph nailed to the wall showing two dozen local hunters with a single day’s kill spread out in front of them. The total: 1,122 birds.
“A record,” Diggs said.
Hitting the birds on the wing is no easy task, hunters say. Snow geese are wary of humans, and hunters often rely on scores of decoys to lure them to corn fields. The geese often fly high out of the effective reach of a shotgun’s spray.
Kryzak and his friends from New York got only two on their first day out, 13 the next.
At Squaw Creek, the geese congregate at the center of open water, often 50 yards or more from land. They leave at first light to feed on waste corn before returning between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. for water and rest. Then they are off again until night, when they return in a great white sheet to rest on the water.
Somehow they know Squaw Creek is safe.
“They’re here to roost and not get harassed,” Welchert said, “not get shot at.”
In other words, it’s a refuge.