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Out There: Islands of geese

5/7/2004
Waterfowl biologist Michael Hill numbers goose eggs to show the sequence in which they were laid. 

Just south of Clarksville, Ark., near the mouth of Spadra Creek, you can stand on the high limestone ledges bordering Lake Dardanelle and see, across the water, several small islands.

The largest covers no more than a few acres; the smallest isn't much bigger than an urban backyard.

Trees, shrubs and grasses blanket each one, concealing the animals that live in this offshore realm.

Signs of beavers are everywhere — trees encircled with tooth-marked grooves; peeled twigs, smooth and gleaming white; scent mounds of mud and leaves; stick lodges; long canals dug for floating branches.

Occasionally a swamp rabbit jumps from its form and dashes away through the dense underbrush. Birds of all sorts call from sheltered hideaways. In winter, eagles soar overhead above rafts of scaup, gadwalls, teal and other ducks.

When I first set foot on the islands one spring morning, I felt like an intruder. I was treated like one, too, when I encountered one of the islands' most numerous residents-the giant Canada goose.

Unaware of this bird's presence, I walked within 10 feet of it before it came crashing through the underbrush, hissing at me with wings spread and neck outstretched. As I tried to push my heart back down into my chest, the huge bird ended its mock attack and flew away.

I moved to the place where the goose first appeared and found a large mound of grasses and sticks near the water's edge. Cupped in the bowl of the nest were five large white eggs.

"Michael!" I shouted. "I've found a nest."

I began this island adventure at the invitation of Michael Hill, then a waterfowl biologist for the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission.

Each April, Hill and other biologists visited Lake Dardanelle to study nesting Canada geese. This project had its roots in the early 1980s, when the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission began reestablishing giant Canada geese in the western Arkansas River Valley.

Giant Canadas have wingspans up to six feet, making them the largest waterfowl besides swans.

Historically, this unique subspecies lived in the prairies of the U.S. and Canada. Rather than making long migrations like other subspecies, giants stayed in the same areas year-round, making only short migrations.

Unfortunately, giants had vanished from much of their former range by the mid-1900s, victims of uncontrolled shooting and wetlands destruction.

The subspecies was believed extinct until 1962, when Harold Hanson of the Illinois Natural History Survey determined that Canada geese wintering at Rochester, Minn., were giants. Subsequently, several remnant populations were found.

After the rediscovery of giant Canada geese, many states initiated or intensified efforts to reestablish resident flocks.

In Arkansas, Canada goose season was closed from 1980 to 1989, allowing the flock to become established and grow.

The state also imported juvenile and adult birds and restocked them in the Lake Dardanelle area. A captive breeding flock near Clarksville produced more than 4,300 giant Canadas that were released in the Arkansas River Valley.

Those released geese, their young and geese that adopted Arkansas from other areas are thriving.

During a survey of the Arkansas River between Plumerville and Ozark in 1983, biologists found 25 goose nests. In 1992, they found 326 nests on a smaller portion of the river.

Today, there are so many giant Canadas nesting in the river valley, it would be impossible to count them all. And what I saw while visiting the islands with Michael Hill would prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Hill made his way to the nest I found.

"I found two more nests over there," he said as he drew near. "But let's work this one first. I'll take measurements; you write them down."

He handed me a clipboard full of data sheets, then bent to examine the eggs.

"First, we determine the sequence in which the eggs were laid," he said. "The dirtiest-looking egg is the one that was laid first. The whitest egg was laid last.

"By looking at the different shades of color, we can figure out the laying sequence and mark each egg."

He lifted the darkest egg from the nest and, using a marker, scrawled a large "1" on its side. A slightly cleaner egg was given a "2," another even more clean was given a "3" and so on until all five eggs were numbered.

"Now we measure each egg's length and width and record it on the data sheet," he said.

Using calipers, he checked each egg and called out in millimeters the figures for me to write. "86.4. 55.2. 88.3. 57.2. …"

"Now we determine the developmental stage of the eggs," Hill said. "This helps us know how long it's been since the eggs were laid, and when they're likely to hatch."

I watched as Hill lifted an egg and placed it in a plastic container partially filled with water.

"Each egg will orient in the water a particular way according to its stage of development," he explained.

"A recently laid egg sinks to the bottom of the water and rests on its side. As the embryo within the egg develops, an air sac forms and grows and, at a certain point in the embryo's development, the egg will start to float.

"If an egg floats with the big end sticking above the water, it's almost ready to hatch."

"We test the most recently laid egg and the last-laid egg in each nest, check its float stage against a chart and record a number from one to six on the data chart," Hill continued.

"This helps me know the progress of the nesting season, and when I should come back to check the success of the hatch."

After the first nest was worked, we moved to the others Hill found and recorded information on them, as well.

Each nest was within just a few yards of another one, and that nest, in turn, was close to another and another and another. I was astonished at that incredible number of goose nests we found — 41 on that island alone. Eighty-three more nests were found on four nearby islands.

"The density of nests on these islands is absolutely incredible," said Hill, a seasoned biologist who has studied Canada geese for more than 10 years.

"You find one nest and 10 steps away a bird flushes off another one. In the Arctic breeding grounds, Canada goose nests are typically a quarter-mile or more apart. Here, they're often within a few feet of each other.

"My research indicates that the islands in Lake Dardanelle probably encompass the highest nesting density of Canada geese in the world."

What an amazing thing, I thought. Only a few decades ago, giant Canadas were thought to be gone forever. But with the help of dedicated individuals like Michael Hill, they've made an astounding comeback.

An amazing story like this — a game animal brought back from the brink of extinction — should be written down so that all might remember. And now it has been.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.