Seeing the Geese in Chevron Flight

My story of banding Canada Geese in the Hudson Bay Lowlands
Canada Geese in flight over water.
See the geese in chevron flight flapping and racing on before the snow  
They've got the urge for going and they've got the wings so they can go
They get the urge for going when the meadow grass is turning brown 
And summertime is falling down – Joni Mitchell

The start of the new year has me reflecting on the last twelve months, as well as years further past, with nostalgia. In upstate New York where I grew up, the onset of autumn is a sweet time of year. The air turns crisp, and the changing tree foliage transforms the landscape into an exquisite painting of red, orange, and yellow hues. As the season progresses and only a handful of leaves remain on the trees, the sound and sight of Canada Geese moving across the sky is the surest sign that winter is on its way. I remember how they would stop in the harvested cornfields of my rural farming community to rest and refuel. The flocks would come and go throughout the day, and whenever a new flock arrived to join a group already on the ground, it was invariably followed by loud, excited chatter among all the birds. I haven’t the foggiest idea what information they were communicating to their newfound flock mates, but it fascinated me, nonetheless. These weren’t the couch potato geese living year-round at the golf course in the suburbs, these were bona fide Canada Geese hailing from the wilderness of distant northern latitudes that I could only dream about. This past summer, however, I finally got to see some of that magnificent landscape when I joined a team of Canadian biologists to band geese along the Ontario coastline of James Bay.

Carrie Gray holding a young Canada Goose in a capture pen.

The first leg of the trip involved traveling to Timmins, Ontario to meet up with Rod Brook, a wildlife research specialist for Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) who has studied waterfowl populations in northern Canada for more than 25 years. In Timmins, we met our MNRF pilot to fly by helicopter to the remote village of Moosonee, Ontario, which would be our base for the next week and where we would meet the rest of the crew. As we flew north out of Timmins, the Boreal Forest stretched out in all directions as a mosaic of spruce forest, muskegs, lakes, and waterways. Extending more than 5,000 km and encompassing more than 1.5 billion acres from Newfoundland and Labrador in the east to Alaska in the west, North America’s Boreal Forest is one of the largest intact forest ecosystems left on earth. It provides breeding habitat for 1 to 3 billion birds representing 399 species each year, including 80% of North America’s waterfowl species. The extent of the wetland habitat that waterfowl rely on in the boreal became apparent as we neared Moosonee and the forest gave way to the Hudson Bay Lowlands—a vast plain along the shores of southern Hudson and James Bay that constitutes the largest wetland network in North America and the third largest in the world. The lowlands rise out of the tidal mud flats of Hudson and James Bay and extend inland across northern Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec for an astounding 324,000 square kilometers of pristine wilderness. At least 35 species of waterfowl use the area as a migration stopover or breeding habitat, including the southern Hudson Bay population of Canada Geese that we had traveled all this way to band. The southern Hudson Bay population summers along the western shore and inland through Ontario and Manitoba, and winters from southern central Canada south throughout the length of the Mississippi Valley. Banding data provides wildlife managers with information about migration, behavior, survival, reproductive success, and population growth. For waterfowl, banding is also an important tool for calculating harvest rates and informing annual waterfowl hunting regulations.

Canada Geese in a capture pen.

The banding efforts of Rod and his crew of four field biologists cover more than 1,000 km of Ontario’s shoreline along southern Hudson Bay and western James Bay and coincide with the monthlong period each summer when the geese molt their flight feathers and cannot fly. Fieldwork entails flying low along the coast in search of geese; once a flock is spotted, the four field biologists are dropped off to surround the birds on each side and hold them in place, while Rod and the pilot find dry ground to land the helicopter and set up a capture pen. The pen is essentially a corral made of nets, which once set up, the crew walks the flock toward, not unlike a cattle drive, while also thwarting the getaways of any escape artists in the flock. It’s not easy work and not without risk; it involves working in a rugged and remote landscape, lots of helicopter flight time, and the potential for polar bear encounters as the crew moves further north along the James Bay coast. Nevertheless, Rod’s crew and a second crew on the Hudson Bay coast band an average of 6,000-7,000 Canada Geese over the course of three weeks each year! We had a couple of rainy days during the week I spent with them, which is a no go for helicopter flights, but we still managed to band well over 1,000 geese in the 4.5 days we were able to get out into the field. The aerial views of the landscape were spectacular. The sight of unbroken wilderness all the way to the horizon in every direction gives you an appreciation of how the world once looked. Most of us live in carved-up landscapes that bear no resemblance to their origins, be they transformed by development in urban and suburban areas or for agriculture in rural areas. But this place was wild. Gray wolves ran along the shoreline and lone black bears ambled along among the trees near the coast. Thousands of shorebirds and ducks could be seen flying below us over the mudflats, Sandhill Cranes filled the marshes, and small flocks of American White Pelicans moved about just offshore.

View from helicopter flying over the Hudson Bay Lowlands.

Southwestern Hudson Bay and western James Bay, along with the adjacent lowlands are also the Traditional Territories of eight coastal Omushkego communities: Attawapiskat First Nation, Chapleau Cree First Nation, Fort Albany First Nation, Kashechewan Cree First Nation, Missanabie Cree First Nation, Moose Cree First Nation, and Tayka Tagamou Nation, and Weenusk First Nation. Together, they comprise the Mushkegowuk Council, who, along with the Fort Severn First Nation, has put forth a proposal for a 91,000 km2 National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA). The establishment of an NMCA in western James Bay would help protect these lands and waters for all the life it supports, including the Canada Geese that migrate there each summer. It would also go a long way to ensuring the Government of Canada meets its commitment to preserve 30 percent of marine and coastal areas by 2030, which more than 100 countries also pledged to do as part of their commitments in the Post-2020 Global Diversity Framework. The framework lays out a series of actions for governments to accomplish to protect biodiversity and restore ecosystems in their countries. In December, Montreal hosted the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity,  which brought together countries from around the world to finalize and adopt that framework for meeting the 30 x 30 conservation targets. Support for and the establishment of the James Bay NMCA, as well as the many other Indigenous-led conservation initiatives currently underway across Canada, will be key to Canada’s success in meeting the targets for biodiversity protection and securing the country’s role as a leader in the global conservation movement.

Canada Goose swimming.