October Travelers: Ospreys and Canada Geese

Chesapeake Almanac Podcast Episode and Transcript

Episode 29
Copyright © John Page Williams, Jr. all rights reserved.

This is John Page Williams with another reading from Chesapeake Almanac. The month is October and this chapter is called "October Travelers: Ospreys and Canada Geese."

Two of the Bay's best loved birds are traveling this month--one going and the other coming. Ospreys are migrating to South America, following their pattern of seeking endless summer. As noted above, the Canada Geese are arriving.

The Chesapeake's ospreys have two summers a year, but they choose to breed here, during their Northern Hemisphere summer. Thus they spend most of their six months on the Bay nesting and raising young. Part of our affection for them lies in the fact that they tend to do this in public places: atop channel markers, on duck blinds, and in trees close to the water. Thus sailors on Whitehall Bay near Annapolis, fishermen at the Hole in the Wall by Gwynns Island, and anybody else spending time on the water can watch the young birds grow from week to week. Ospreys appear to adapt well to the presence of man.

In late summer, the young fledged (that is, grew feathers and began to fly) and learned to fish on their own. By now, they and their parents are headed to their Southern Hemisphere summer in Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela, and in some cases, in Cuba and Central America. It's remarkable, from the human frame of reference at least, that these young birds can make such flights at the age of four months, with no more than half that time as fledglings.

October, then, is a month for empty nests, and this noble but conspicuous bird becomes a rare sight. The last osprey of fall is something to take note of, a milestone in the fabric of the year. Any bird sighted here now is likely to be a straggler on its way down from New England or the Canadian Maritime Provinces.

For us, the sense of loss at the departure of the ospreys is tempered by rejoicing at the return of the Canada geese. Each October, there are times when low pressure weather systems move through the Bay country. After them, the barometer shoots up, the sky turns crystal clear, the wind comes northwest, and the geese stream by high overhead all day long.

Every year, more geese summer over in the Bay region and in states just to the north. Even so, the bulk of the Chesapeake's wintering population still breeds on the tundra of the Ungava Peninsula in Quebec, especially on the shores of Ungava Bay to the east and Hudson's Bay to the west. In late September and October, these are the birds that come down in the high V's, looking for familiar haunts. Fledglings migrate along with their parents. Like the young ospreys, these geese are already full-sized and strong enough for long flights.

Also like the ospreys, Canada geese seem to adapt well to man and to some of our uses of land and water. In spite of heavy human population pressure on the Bay, the goose population has increased over the last century (although it does have its ups and downs), including now in 2021. The major reasons for the increase are mechanical grain harvesting techniques that farmers here adopted widely after World War II--mechanical pickers leave more scrap grain in the field than traditional methods--and the more recent practice of planting winter grains and cover crops. Geese are well suited anatomically to take advantage of these circumstances, since their legs are set far enough forward on their bodies to enable them to balance well on land. That sounds like an obvious point, but diving ducks like canvasbacks and other diving birds like loons have their legs set so far back that balancing themselves on their feet for long periods is exhausting or impossible. Underwater they are much more efficient than geese, but on land (to paraphrase the saying about fish), they are ducks out of water.

The Chesapeake is ideally set up for field-feeding geese. The Eastern Shore and much of the lower western shore are given over to productive crop lands laced freely with tidal rivers and creeks. Thus the birds have abundant food on land and plenty of nearby water for roosting safely at night. They feed enthusiastically on corn, soybeans, and green cover crops, so they return to their breeding grounds each spring in better shape than before, even after harsh winters. Hence their populations increase. Over the last half century, sometimes they seem almost commonplace, feeding around the Visitors' Center at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge below Cambridge or flying in flocks of thousands over Route 213 outside Chestertown.

October is a busy month on the Bay. There are many interesting things going on, but one of the best is standing outdoors on a clear night, listening to geese high overhead--another of the year's milestones.

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