Sights, sounds of snow geese in countryside strange and amazing

Filling the sky: Snow geese fly in Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area. Snow Geese have white bodies with black wingtips. The flock also has darker version of snow geese, too, often called “blue geese,” with a white face, dark brown body.Photo by John Maxwell/Indiana DNR

It's not unusual to see Indiana farm fields covered in white in January.

The sight outside my window was different, though, as I drove my pickup truck west on U.S. 150 near the Indiana-Illinois state line on New Year's Day. Misty rain forced me to turn on the windshield wipers, and the afternoon temperature topped 40 degrees. Thus, the sea of white atop the plowed, black dirt wasn't snow.

It was snow geese. Thousands and thousands of them.

I grew up in small-town, rural Indiana, and spent much of my boyhood years camping and exploring creek beds and woods. Critters that crawl, swim and fly aren't foreign to me. But I'd never seen so many birds in one place, until that drive along 150 on Tuesday.

Curious, I pulled the truck onto a gravel farm path, parked and watched. The geese stand about 30 inches tall and sport a wingspan of more than 4 feet, so their movements en masse dominated the horizon. Some waddled over the rows of corn stubble, pecking at the ground. Others darted into the air, revealing the black wing tips on their otherwise white plumage. A few darker "blue geese," mostly gray and black, dotted the scene.

I'd left the truck radio playing, with the window down, while I stood there gazing. Yet, the squawks of tens of thousands of geese easily drowned out the radio. I reached in and turned it off, leaving pure silence on that remote stretch of highway west of Libertyville, except for the birds' cacophony.

Imagine the sound of an arena full of excited 5-year-olds at "Spongebob Squarepants" live show. It's that shrill and loud.

I was amazed.

Such wintertime scenes had long been more common in Arkansas, Missouri and Texas, where the snow geese gather on wide open crop grounds and desolate wetlands. In recent years, the species has migrated eastward into southwestern Indiana, said Adam Phelps, waterfowl biologist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

"We're seeing more and more in Indiana in wintertime," Phelps explained. "We're not sure why they're moving further east, but they're not the only species doing that."

Phelps has witnessed hundreds of thousands of snow geese congregating along the lower Wabash River during the DNR's weekly helicopter surveys of the region.

"They're such an impressive thing to see," Phelps said Thursday. A flock "looks like a big, white tornado, and the noise is unbelievable."

His description precisely captures the moment when the geese lift off and swoop into the sky.

A flock of 6,000 snow geese flew over Terre Haute on Dec. 15, spotted while members of the Wabash Valley Audubon Society conducted their annual Christmas Bird Count.

"It's a great winter bird scene," said Peter Scott, an ecologist and bird count organizer. "They roost on the water at night and fly out to the grain fields to feed."

And, indeed, "they make a ton of noise," Scott added.

In western Vigo County, near the Illinois border, "there are huge numbers" of snow geese, Scott said. They find abundant water in lakes near the mining region, and grain in adjacent crop lands. The snow geese blend in with greater white-fronted geese, Canada geese, trumpeter swans, tundra swans and an assortment of ducks, Scott said.

Snow geese have traditionally feasted on rice field waste in Missouri, Arkansas and Texas. Their population increased during the latter half of the 20th century in North America, especially in the 1990s, and into this century, according to the National Audubon Society. Several states, including Indiana, now conduct hunting seasons for snow geese. They are considered "over abundant," Phelps said. As a result, in some places, the snow geese have chewed the vegetation on the winter tundra down to the mud, Phelps explained, limiting their habitat.

These days, they flow into southwestern Indiana in mid-December, stay until mid-February and then migrate north to breed in the Arctic tundra.

Indiana DNR surveyors counted a state record 378,000 snow geese once near Duke Energy's Gibson County Generating Station. Their numbers in Gibson County dipped under 100,000 earlier this week, Phelps said, and he speculated that some might have flown into Vigo County near the state line on New Year's Day.

"They could be" those same geese, he said, "or they could be a completely unrelated flock."

I drove back to that same spot late Thursday afternoon, hoping to get another glimpse of the massive natural wonder on a sunnier day. They were gone, at least at that moment. I'll be glancing out my truck window, though, the next time I drive that highway.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.