Snow Geese at Middle Creek
On a Saturday morning in mid March a friend and amazing nature photographer Christian Hunold sent me a text mentioning he was thinking of heading to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Pennsylvania. I was originally planning on heading there myself a few days later but once the invite came I jumped on board. I met up with Christian and he drove the almost 2 hours to hopefully witness a spectacle of Snow Geese.
For many years now Middle Creek has become a stopover for the hundreds of thousands of Snow Geese migrating north to their breeding grounds. There are single days when the estimates of the flock pass 150,000 birds! I had seen many photos from this location and was anxious to give it a try myself. I was also glad to be going along with someone who had been there before.
When we first arrived at Middle Creek it was obvious we weren't the only ones visiting this spot to see the Snow Geese. The cars overflowed out of the main parking lot and lined the road. Christian found a spot to park, we grabbed our cameras and started the short walk to where we would hopefully see some geese. We passed many other birders, photographers and even families who were all there to see the geese. It was really neat to see how many and how diverse the crowd was, and all just to see some birds! We walked up to a spot that gave a good overlook of the entire area and well, it was a little disappointing. There were some Snow Geese really far out as well as a flock of Tundra Swans that many people were checking out. I was glad to see there were still geese around but I had certainly hoped for more. As we stood there for a moment another friend of mine, Scott Keys who is also a great photographer walked up and said hello. It was quite amusing that he randomly found us in the crowd and we had not planned to meet there that day. After exchanging hellos he informed us that there were big flocks of Snow Geese in the fields down the road a bit. We thanked Scott for the info, grabbed our gear, and drove over to the fields.
As soon as we pulled up I began to get really excited seeing the brown fields partially covered in white. The geese where here! Christian and I found a spot that looked decent, sat ourselves down and started taking photos. In the beginning the closer edge of the flock was still a good distance away but after a short time I could tell they were slowly coming towards us. Wave after wave, more geese would come land in the field and the flock began to grow before my eyes. I could not believe our luck to have Snow Geese flying in and landing right in front of us as we took photo after photo. "Coming in from the left", "another on the right", "flock overhead", I kept calling out. The geese were everywhere, this was an absolute blast!
Before I went to Middle Creek, I had envisioned taking a photo of a Snow Goose flying right at me and slowing down for a landing. After about 30 minutes I had taken about 15 different varieties of that photo! The light wind and beautifully filtered sun were at our back and it caused the birds to land right in front of us, this was exactly what I wanted. The conditions could not have been much better. As the flock slowly inched closer I started trying to take portraits of individual birds in the flock. The hardest part became isolating just a single bird out of the thousands.
I mostly concentrated on the flying geese for about the first hour or so but when the geese started coming within about 50 feet it was nice to try for interesting portraits. Occasionally some turmoil would erupt in the flock as a few birds would fight and I was lucky enough to capture the action once.
After about 2 hours of non-stop photography of all the action, I remember taking a moment to rest and just watch the incredible scene in front of my eyes. The field, now almost entirely white, was alive with the movement and sounds of these beautiful birds. Hundreds of people lined the road watching and photographing the same thing and you could tell how happy everyone was to see such a sight. I never saw one person try to get too close and scare away the flock, everyone was respectful and well behaved. It was such a wonderful outing.
At one point the flock got so close to the crowd of people and myself that I could not focus on them. To watch a goose through the telephoto lens that close was a real treat, the detail of the feathers and eyes were crystal clear and they seemed perfectly at ease with our presence. I noticed that the geese had come the closest to the crowd directly in front of us, apparently Christian and I had picked the perfect spot.
After spending two and a half hours with the Snow Geese I had every photo I could have possibly wanted except for one, the entire flock in the air. I had heard this usually happened towards the end of the evening and pretty much on cue a few birds started leaving, then more, then even more. At one point a huge group of them lifted off and I thought to myself "this is it, get ready" but it was not. All of a sudden it happened! It started in the distance, like a wave coming right at me, thousands upon thousands of white and black Snow Geese exploded into the evening sky! Immediately the sound was incredible, almost deafening. I did my best to focus on something, anything, but with a flock of this size you pretty much just point the lens at the group and hope something comes out. There isn't much you can do to compose a photo with that many birds in the air. A big part of the flock flew right over the heads of the crowd, it was an amazing event to witness in person. After the majority of the flock took off we turned around to walk back to the car and noticed a huge bank of clouds rolling in to block the sun, perfect timing to end the day.
My first visit to Middle Creek is certainly one I will never forget and even though I got all the photos I wanted, I can't wait to go back and see it again next year. Just in case you were wondering, I did not once get pooped on, it was an all around great day.