Part of Spring Went Missing This Year…
By Richard Sutton
©2012, All Rights Reserved by the Author
Imagine a soft, spring morning out on the waters between the Acabonack peninsula andCoeclesHarbor. The sunlight sets up a field of diamonds across the expanse of Gardiner’s Bay, lapping right up to your toes as you stand in the tide-washed gravel. You’re looking Eastwards fromShelterIsland. Huge oaks are just now leafing out, standing in unwavering strength behind you, where the woods lies deep and dark despite the hour. You’re not the only one there, though. There are others enjoying the morning. Deer may be quietly grazing just beyond the fringe of the forest while their awkward acquaintances, Raccoons ramble slowly along the tide line looking for crabs and other edibles. Along the edge of the curving beach, as it runs down towards a jagged reef of boulders, the calls of a small float of Canada Geese a few yards into the Bay, almost seem to argue with the seagulls nesting ashore.
Now imagine the same scene in the 1750s. The waterbird contingent might easily have been 20,000 birds strong, their boisterous conversation filling the air. Canada Geese have been stopping in the estuaries of the Eastern Seaboard for many thousands of years. Their migratory paths traditionally crossEastern Long Islandin several spots where even today they are frequent visitors and in some cases, year-around residents. A few of us like ‘em, but most it seems, don’t anymore, since their numbers began rebounding in the 1980s.
It’s been almost twenty years since we made Greenport our home harbor. The year we saw our first float of Loons out near Bug Light confirmed our decision, and each spring while outfitting the boat, we marked the real beginning of spring on the day the Geese and their newly hatched goslings began to parade up and down alongside the docks. The parent birds would always exhibit strong signals of pride as their little, yellow fluff-balls skittered through the water in an organized line behind their Mother, with Dad, always keeping a sharp eye out, bringing up the rear.
As migratory waterfowl, they are still a protected species. In the late 1600s and 1700s, when their populations were many times what they are today, an entire industry of boat design and construction thrived. These were the days of the gunning boats. Long, low craft that stealthily slid through the quiet waters of the favorite haunts of large floats of geese and ducks. Mounted atop their decks were long, smooth-bore guns designed to fire loads of nails and shot a great distance, close to the surface of the water. They threw so many projectiles from their muzzles, accuracy was not needed. When a couple of these converged on a big float of birds, most of them would be killed and harvested. Of course, their lack of accuracy led to many other problems, so that eventually they were banned in the interest of human safety. The geese, of course, returned, their numbers slowly climbing.
A few years later, during the 1930s and 1940s, when the use of pesticides reached a highpoint in every agricultural State, Long Island farmers, looking to maximize their crop yields, used all sorts of helpful chemicals, many of which, by the 1950s, had caused sharp declines in the number of predatory birds, such as the Osprey and the Eagle. Goose populations plummeted as well, but when the use of these substances were banned, primarily because of the effects upon the drinking water resources, bird populations began building again despite the odds.
This year we started looking for the baby geese the first weeks of May. We saw lots of adult geese in groups of ten to twenty birds, but no goslings. We still haven’t seen a single baby goose or baby swan, so we’ve had to settle for accepting the “official” first day of spring. It doesn’t feel the same at all. Of course, I understand that there have been volumes of discussion from a wide range of experts about how terribly the expanding populations of geese have affected everything from clean water to the sanctity of our golf games.
We understand that dealing with the goose problem has required a flexible approach. They are a “protected” species, after all. One of the things we know was discussed, is interfering with the eggs in goose nests so that they will never hatch, or chemically inducing infertility. We thought that was an extreme measure, but apparently it has been working. It may work much more profoundly over time than anyone has expected – most of our “carefully conceived” solutions to natural problems have unfortunate outcomes. We humans don’t much like neighbors. Whether they are the birds that lived here first, or the bears, or the deer, we just can’t seem to learn to live alongside them.