Thursday, December 23, 2010

The gleaners 2: clouds of snow (geese)

First it was black. Now it is white.

A few weeks ago, blackbirds by the thousands were the story here in the cornfields of Warren County, NJ. Now it is thousands of even prettier birds: snow geese. I am even beginning to see the
merits (albeit imperfect and possibly double-edged) of corn, a crop that I previously thought was utterly useless to wildlife beyond deer and turkeys (and cows).

I'm not patient enough to actually count or even reasonably estimate the numbers I saw a few days ago, but it was a lot. My off-the-cuff estimate (though I don't have 'cuffs') is over 10,000...maybe even 20,000 or more! I was working by the river (Musconetcong) on the morning of Dec 20th I watched flock after flock after flock pass over headed northeast (upstream), flying in low, loose, honking, barking V's for over 15 minutes. If you're into math, maybe a flock of 100 flew over every 5 seconds (conservatively) steadily for at least 15 minutes, followed by a few straggler flocks. That comes out to at least 18,000!!! That has to be a measurable percentage (i.e., at least 0.1%?) of total world snow geese numbers. Pretty neat to think about.

The day before one unit of this super flock
(a flock of V's) landed in the cornfield just a few hundred yards from the house. Feasting on corn. Imitating snow. Honking. Lift-off resulted in an apocalyptic roar, and a steady stream of barkers and honkers swirling low over our house, deciding where to go next and who to follow.

This is actually a well-known flock that I was just lucky enough to host for a few days. It is most famously for icing over Merril Creek reservoir nightly with white feathered bodies, the vast clouds arriving there at dusk, and departing each morning on a daily quest for waste grain.

Ah, waste grain. It doesn't sound very significant, but living here has made me realize that the innocent little unharvested kernels are actually a global ecological force. It helps to sustains these artificially-vast hordes of snow geese (a species whose population is dramatically on the increase), which are denuding fragile alpine vegetation in the arctic and fragile salt marshes along the coast. It sustains artificially-vast flocks of brown-headed cowbirds, each one a little flying "percentage point" of nest success for North American warblers, thrushes, vireos, tanagers, grassland sparrows, and on and on. (Bird feeders are also culpable in this phenomenon, but I wont be such a grinch.) And those factors don't even consider the corn-fertilizer-induced Gulf of Mexico dead zone, which is so large and so dead that it must affect some bird species (if that's all you care about)!

Anyway, my bittersweet relationship with corn continues. Time for a corn muffin.

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