Wild goose chase in Md. Migration: It's the time of year when Canada geese return here for the winter. But if you want to see the true migratory birds, bypass the "resident geese" and head east.

November 12, 1996|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

On most any moonlit night you can hear them this time of year, strung out above in a floating "V," honking like bicycle horns, big wings thrumming.

The geese are back for the winter, with sights and sounds evocative enough to make a confirmed suburbanite feel momentarily rustic, as if he'd just stepped from the pages of the novel "Chesapeake."

Alas, it's all an illusion, even if a pretty one.

Almost every goose in Baltimore's skies is itself a suburbanite, a day-night commuter as rigidly locked into the daily grind as an investment banker. These are the so-called "resident geese," clustered year-round at golf courses, parks and municipal reservoirs.

If you're looking for the real thing -- a hard-flying, long-migrating, gun-shy, true Canadian that only stops in Maryland for the winter -- you must head east, where you can find great flocks that fill the sky.

But geese experts such as biologist Bill Harvey will forgive you if you get all mushy and romantic about those suburban birds anyway. He studies them for a living for the state Department of Natural Resources, but he too has been struck by just how much a part of regional sensibility geese have become.

"It used to be, about 50 years ago, that canvasbacks [ducks] were closely identified with the Chesapeake Bay," Harvey said. "But Canada geese have certainly replaced canvasbacks. All you have to do is look at the billboards along the side of the road or go to the waterfowl festival. When you start looking around, it's amazing how many companies use a goose on their sign. It's obvious that the birds mean a whole lot to the identity of the state."

Go shopping for Maryland beers and you'll bump into a case of "Wild Goose." Check out an old copy of "Chesapeake," the James Michener novel set on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and you'll find a goose on the cover. Michener, in fact, was downright thematically obsessed with the elemental thrills of geese, especially when a V-formation was honking its way south, soaring darkly across the glowing face of the moon.

Every character in the book seemed to hyperventilate at the sight, whether a 17th-century Indian or a crusty, 19th-century waterman who declared, "The life of man is divided into two seasons: 'Geese is here. Geese ain't here.' "

With resident geese, of course, there's only one season: Geese is always here. But even they, like their migratory cousins, prefer to feed in farm fields this time of year. Which explains why you'll often see them commuting across the sky when you're hauling out the garbage in the morning or tending the barbecue grill at night. "There are an awful lot of them in the flyway right now," Harvey said.

About as exotic as these flocks get is when they're joined by resident geese visiting from neighboring states. "Some of the ones in New York and Pennsylvania sort of get frozen out every year, and plenty of them come down," Harvey said. Other than those, "You'll only find a handful of the migratory birds west of I-95. Most of them are out on the coastal plain."

So, for the true Maryland geese experience, spend an early morning at a place such as Eastern Neck Island National Wildlife Refuge, near Rock Hall. It's about a two-hour drive from Baltimore, although it is almost directly across the bay.

On Wednesday, they rose from the inlets and marshes not long after dawn, soaring by the thousands in great clouds that quickly formed into their familiar, aerodynamic patterns. Within minutes they moved high and distant, revving to their cruising speed of about 40 mph, strung out in ragged, shifting V's, a faint cross-stitch against high clouds.

Some nearby red-winged blackbirds joined in the commotion, flitting from the underbrush with their radio-whine trills. Otherwise, no sound on the morning breeze but the honking of geese.

Pub Date: 11/12/96

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