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Snow Geese Are an Awesome Spectacle

If you live near the St. Lawrence River between Montreal and Quebec City, you don’t have to travel far to observe one of nature’s awesome displays. You just have to be willing to get up really early to catch sight of hundreds of thousands of white geese rise into the air at once, just as the sun comes up.

Every spring, from late March to early May, Lake Saint-Pierre, a wide, shallow section of the St. Lawrence River downstream from Montreal, floods the adjacent farmland. The area is a favorite resting and feeding spot for migrating Greater Snow Geese, Canada Geese and several types of ducks, but it is the geese that are the crowd-pleasers. More than 500,000 Greater Snow Geese can be found there.

One morning in early April, Montreal photographer Barry McGee and a friend drove to Baie-du-Febvre, on the south shore of Lake Saint-Pierre, and set up their cameras in the pre-dawn glow. “It was freezing cold and the birds were huddled very close together on the snowy fields beside the highway,” McGee says. “The noise grew as the birds started calling and suddenly, just as the sun rose, all the birds took off. There were so many of them, they darkened the sky overhead.”

snow geese
Snow Geese in the early morning light
photo courtesy Barry McGee

The Greater Snow Goose is easily identified by its colour: it is all white, except for black wing tips, although many of the birds have rust-tinged heads, stained by the iron in the mud they dig through to find food.

Snow Geese eat the roots and leaves of grasses and other plants in their breeding grounds in the high Arctic and aquatic vegetation during the winter along the Atlantic seaboard between New Jersey and South Carolina. During their fall migration, they feast on the roots of bulrushes around Cap Tourmente, on the St. Lawrence River near Quebec City. During the winter, and during the spring migration, they also eat leftover corn and oats in agricultural fields.

snow geese and Canada geese
Canada Geese and Greater Snow Geese
photo courtesy Barry McGee

These geese undertake an exhausting 4,000-kilometre journey along a spring migration route that takes them through Central Quebec. Huge flocks of the birds can also be seen at other spots along the river, and at Cap Tourmente.

Around 1900, the Greater Snow Goose population numbered about 3,000. Hunting restrictions, the establishment of bird sanctuaries such as the Cap Tourmente National Wildlife Area, and a change in their eating habits --the addition of agricultural crops to their diet -- during the 1970s allowed them to multiply. In 2006, the Canadian Wildlife Service estimated the spring population at 1,000,000. Now wildlife biologists think there are too many Greater Snow Geese as the birds damage crops and Arctic vegetation. In addition to the Inuit, who hunt them for food, recreational hunters are allowed to shoot the geese in both spring and fall to help control the population.

Meanwhile, the people of Baie-du-Febvre welcome the influx of birdwatchers, sightseers and families to the town, about a 90-minute drive from Montreal. Cars can park beside the fields along Highway 132, and there are elevated observation areas. While the birds are visible in the fields all day long, the most spectacular scenes are at sunrise, when they take off to search for food, and around sunset when they rejoin the flock for the night. The Baie-du-Febvre interpretation centre, open daily from March through November, has displays on the geese and the natural flooding cycle of Lake Saint-Pierre, and in early April there is an exhibit of wildlife-themed art.

For more information: Baie-du-Febvre (in French)
Hinterland Who's Who. Bird Fact Sheets: Greater Snow Goose

Copyright Janice Hamilton 2007