It only takes a look to the sky during this time of year to see one of (or thousands) of our avian winter visitors. Barton County plays host to thousands of geese every winter, and many people wonder what these geese are doing when we see the huge flocks overhead daily.
Typically, five species of geese can be observed in Barton County: Canada Geese, Cackling Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, Snow Geese, and Ross’s Geese. Most readers are familiar with Canada’s, White-fronts (Speckled-bellies), and Snow Geese, but Cackling Geese and Ross’s Geese might not be familiar. Cackling Geese look very similar to Canada Geese, and until the early 2000’s were considered a sub-species of Canada’s. However, since then, ornithologists have designated Cacklers as a distinct species. Cackling Geese are smaller than Canada’s. Similarly, Ross’s Geese look very similar to Snow Geese to the untrained eye, however they too are a separate species. Ross’s Geese are generally smaller than Snow’s, have smaller bills, and lack a dark line on the edge of their bills, commonly called a grin patch.
It is not uncommon for Cheyenne Bottoms to host 300,000-500,000 geese during any one time from November to February. Checking the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area website, this week’s waterfowl counts estimate 100,000-200,000 geese on the area. As long as the geese have open, unfrozen water, Kansas is as far South as many of the geese will migrate for the winter. However, if most of the surface water freezes, they will often venture further south.
Geese staying around Cheyenne Bottoms have an interesting daily routine. If you pay attention to when you see birds in the air, and what direction they are heading, it is pretty easy to figure out their routine. Typically, geese will roost on or near a water source. The wetlands at Cheyenne Bottoms provide an ideal roosting area.
8 a.m. Usually 30-90 minutes after sunrise (geese are notorious late-risers in comparison to other birds), large groups of geese will become quite active and begin leaving their roost sites in search of food. This is the first period of the day that observers are most likely to see large groups of geese in the air. Most of the geese are searching for cut milo, wheat, sorghum, corn, or soybean fields to feed on excess grain. Geese will travel up to 20 miles from their roost site to find feeding areas.
11 a.m. After eating for a couple hours in the fields, groups of geese will start leaving the fields in search of a nearby, afternoon loafing spot. This is the second prime time of day to see geese on the wing. Their afternoon hideout is often a water body, where the geese can get a drink and rest during the afternoon. If their feeding area was close to the roost site, they may return but often times they find closer ponds or lakes.
3:30 p.m. After a long afternoon of resting and digesting, geese will start heading back out to the fields for an evening meal. Again, this a common time to see large groups in the air.
5 p.m. To complete the day, geese begin making their way back to their roost sites right around sunset. This can be one of the more impressive times to come to Cheyenne Bottoms. The experience of a beautiful winter sunset with thousands of geese gathering back at the wetlands, can be an awesome sight. From here, the geese will spend their night and awake ready to start the routine over again.
The longer one lives in the area, the easier it is to take the daily site of large flocks of geese flying around for granted. Yes, geese can be destructive to crops and can be a nuisance at some of our local lakes and ponds, but their presence is something we can appreciate as nature lovers.
Over the next couple months, I encourage you to take a couple minutes to study the geese you see flying over your house and hypothesize what they are doing and where they are going. And, if you are able, follow them back to Cheyenne Bottoms for a great evening spectacle.