- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 2, 2002

VIRGINIA BEACH (AP) Thousands of snow geese and other migratory waterfowl make their winter homes at the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge at this time of year, but their numbers are down from past years because of unusually warm weather, according to wildlife specialists.
John Gallegos, chief wildlife biologist at the refuge, estimates that between 1,700 and 2,500 snow geese are wintering this year at the sprawling refuge at the upper end of the Bay. They share the refuge with smaller groups of migratory birds.
"Tundra swans, 30," Mr. Gallegos tells biologist Rachel Cliche, who repeats the number into a small tape recorder. "Canada geese, 11; mallards, 9; black back gulls, 3."
The birds arrive in late fall after long journeys from the northern plains, Canada the Arctic Circle. They often navigate through harsh weather and dense fog and arrive at southern ponds exhausted and hungry.
Warmer weather prompted some migrating birds to choose wintering spots farther north, the biologists said, noting that there's no need for the birds to continue south if ponds farther north don't freeze.
In addition to counting the adult birds, Mr. Gallegos and Miss Cliche are also conducting a census of juveniles. They are easy to spot because they have brown spots on their gray bodies. Counting the young birds gives the biologists a gauge of health of the breeding stock and helps them to estimate the size of next year's flock.
Back Bay and other Eastern Shore refuges are considered vital to dozens of migrating species, particularly as more wintering grounds along the Atlantic disappear.
The Back Bay refuge was created in 1938, inspired by the annual migraton. Its original size of 4,589 acres has about doubled as adjacent land was added to the site.
The sheltering refuge ponds are filled with fresh water pumped over from Back Bay. The ponds are emptied each spring to accommodate wading birds that feed in the mudflats.
Only a few public tours of the refuge are allowed during the winter, as the biologists strive to keep the birds undisturbed.
"It's important for the birds to conserve as much energy as possible in order that they build up body fat," said Mr. Gallegos, a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That fat powers their return trip to the north and ensures that they arrive healthy enough to breed, he said.
Snow geese feed on tubers and roots in the marsh. Mr. Gallegos said the plants are so thick at Back Bay that there's no danger of the birds destroying the marsh. "They're actually doing us a favor" by helping to thin out the vegetation, he said.
The geese leave in February or March, returning by early spring to the Canadian tundra to build nests.

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