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Juneau's resident population of Canada geese is settling into its winter routine on the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge. On cold windy days, the large birds hunker down in huge flocks to conserve body heat and energy. Flocks numbering into the hundreds are common at this time of year.
One of the delights of living in Juneau is the opportunity to observe healthy populations of geese and ducks feeding in the wild natural setting of the wetlands. Egan Drive commuters get close-up views of a wide variety of waterfowl.
If undisturbed the geese tend to congregate in grassy areas along the shores of Gastineau Channel where their favorite food - sedge - is readily available. Tidal fluctuation often keeps these foraging zones ice-free even in the coldest weather.
If eagles or other potential predators, including loose dogs, threaten the geese, the flock often will rise en masse, honking loudly, and fly at relatively low altitudes to similar habitat or even circle and return to the original resting places.
At this time of year, the winter flight patterns of Canada geese most often run parallel to the channel or near the Mendenhall River and the open meadows adjacent to Mendenhall Peninsula. By the end of March, the geese are headed to nesting grounds. In summer geese seem to disappear as they raise their families or move to protected areas in Glacier Bay or Seymour Canal to molt.
During the autumn waterfowl hunting season from September to mid-December, the Canada geese begin commuting daily from the wetlands to other areas where the birds are not hunted. As soon as hunting season opens, many of the geese depart the wetlands just before dawn and fly to Auke Lake. The geese rest on the lake and other non-hunting areas during the day. As dark approaches the flocks return to the tideflats and feed on the wetlands vegetation at night.
During December I recorded the flight times as the geese flew over my house at Pederson Hill near Auke Lake. On the winter solstice the geese landed at the lake at about 8 a.m. and returned to the wetlands at 3 p.m. By contrast, a month earlier when the days were longer and hunting started earlier in the morning they arrived at the lake at 7:15 a.m. and departed for the wetlands at 3:50 p.m.
The geese continued their daily commute despite the end of hunting season in mid-December. But when the weather changed around Christmas the flights to the lake ceased as temperatures dropped and snow began to fall. Now they remain on the wetlands continuously.
Studying the flight routes of geese will help us understand how to keep a safe separation between these large birds and aircraft using the airport. Many observers have seen geese fly from the wetlands toward the floatpond and runway but veer away as they approached the spruce forest adjacent to the Airport Dike Trail. Rather than fly over the trees, the flocks repeatedly avoided the forest by flying east or west parallel to the trees and trail.
Some witnesses believe the presence of eagles perching in the trees may deter the geese. Having watched an eagle kill a goose I can understand why the geese fear eagles and give them wide berth. Hunters have suggested that the geese avoid forested zones on the refuge because the birds have learned that hunters use the wooded dredge islands as blinds.
Geese provide food for hunters and pleasure for wildlife enthusiasts. With careful management different users can continue to enjoy the opportunity of living near a resident population of handsome waterfowl.
Wetland hikers and dog owners can help the birds conserve energy during cold winter days by giving the geese a buffer of undisturbed space. That also keeps the geese on the tideflats and not flushed into the air where they might become potential bird strike hazards near the airport.
Thoughtful coexistence is the key to understanding, appreciating and preserving our wonderful natural world.
To learn more about Canada geese, the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge, or waterfowl hunting visit the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Web page at www.state.ak.us/adfg/adfghome.htm. The state's Wildlife Notebook series features excellent illustrations and information on birds and animals. The site also provides a history of the refuge and hunting regulations.
• Laurie Ferguson Craig is a daily observer of activity on the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge. Theresa Svancara and Jeff Sauer will present a slide program on Pitcairn Island group when Juneau Audubon Society meets at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 13, at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School.