Geese outlook is mixed, Md. official says

On the Outdoors

July 07, 1996|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

For 10 days last month, William Harvey, head of Maryland's Migratory Bird Program, spent his days flying transects over the Ungava Peninsula in Northern Quebec, evaluating the status of the Atlantic Flyway Canada goose.

For most of the past decade, the population of migratory Canada geese has been declining in the Atlantic Flyway, apparently victims of poor breeding conditions and hunting seasons from New England to Virginia that killed too many immature birds for too many years.

Last year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the states in the flyway declared a moratorium on hunting migratory Canada geese until the breeding population rebuilds itself to biologically acceptable levels.

This year, Harvey's fourth to fly the breeding ground survey with USFWS and the Canadian Wildlife Service, the waterfowl biologist got his first look at a migratory population, which in large part passed the winter in Maryland with deaths only from natural causes.

What he saw on the vast emptiness of the Ungava Peninsula, Harvey said last week, was both encouraging and discouraging.

"It is good news and bad news, really," said Harvey, adding that he has yet to fully evaluate the data collected. "The bad news was the [habitat] conditions. But through the area we saw a substantial increase in pairs."

The state of the habitat is out of anyone's control, of course. But the number of geese paired off waiting to breed, nest and raise young apparently is indicative of a goose population that is accumulating numbers of breeding-age birds.

"If you were to add up all the birds, the total probably is down 10 percent [from last year], but more were pairs," Harvey said. "I interpret that to mean the closure increased the survival of birds, allowed more breeding pairs from last year to return to the breeding grounds and allowed more younger birds to reach breeding age."

And if more birds are reaching breeding age, Harvey said, "Things are going in the right direction."

Over the past several years, the number of immature birds killed by hunters had reached levels that made it virtually impossible for the migratory birds to rebuild on their own. Simply, some biologists said, there were too few young birds to replace the monogamous breeders that were killed or died.

Harvey still must complete the report he will present to the USFWS and Atlantic Flyway state representatives at a meeting on July 23, but the excursion to Quebec left him relatively certain that this will not be a banner breeding year.

"It was interesting this year because in general it was a very late spring, especially on the Ungava Bay side," said Harvey, whose surveys ranged from Ungava Bay on the eastern shore of the peninsula to Hudson Bay on the west shoreline. "On June 23 it was still 90 percent frozen. That is the latest I have seen it frozen by far."

On much of the Ungava Bay shoreline, Harvey said, where in June there usually is a band of ice a mile wide, this year there was ice to "an island that is 43 miles out."

Under such conditions, Harvey said, geese that have paired off wait for the thaw and in the process exhaust the energy reserves they have built over the winter in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia.

"Once they drain those reserves, there is no way to rebuild them," Harvey said, and as a result either the geese produce small clutches of eggs or no eggs at all.

Austin Reed, a biologist for the Canadian Wildlife Service, has set up areas on the breeding grounds to closely check nesting conditions and brood sizes.

"He spent four days looking for nests . . . and only found 16," said Harvey. "That is what we saw from the air, too. We saw singles, pairs and groups that were not on territories, but along Ungava Bay we saw very little nesting activity."

Approximately one-third of Maryland birds come from the Ungava Bay side, Harvey said, and two-thirds come from the Hudson Bay side of the peninsula, where conditions were somewhat better.

"It was a late spring on the Hudson Bay side, too. But it looked like much better nesting there," said Harvey. "Reed reported good numbers of birds nesting on the Hudson Bay side, but with smaller than average clutch sizes."

In good years, the average clutch of eggs is slightly more than four. This year, Harvey said, on the Hudson Bay side the average appears to be about three.

"It looks like a real low production year -- especially on the Ungava Bay side," said Harvey. "Even by the time we left, we saw no green. The only growth we saw was brown and left over from last year."

After the flyway meeting on July 23, at which Reed and Harvey will present their findings, the USFWS and representatives from the flyway states will make their recommendations on whether the moratorium on hunting migratory birds will continue.

Pub Date: 7/07/96

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