Beechdale waterfowl and shorebird staging area
Stopping at a shallow, human-made pond by Mill Creek along Beechdale Road in Lancaster County farmland one March afternoon, I saw mixed flocks of Canada geese and snow geese rising noisily, one after another, from a nearby field. Those gatherings of bugling geese flew toward that half-acre pond on the same aerial path visible only to them and descended into the wind to the water like a roaring, feathered waterfall. The first arrivals floated on the pond and honked, as more clamorous flocks descended to the same built impoundment and landed on the water among their fellows without collision.
I occasionally visit that inches-deep pond early in spring and again during late summer into autumn to experience the migrant waterfowl and sandpipers and plovers (shorebirds) that gather there. The impoundment, with Mill Creek and the surrounding short-grass pastures, creates a human-made habitat attractive to several kinds of adaptable, water-loving birds.
Every winter, and in February and March particularly, thousands of Canada geese rest on the pond. Sometimes, snow geese settle on that built impoundment during some Februarys into March. And occasionally, a brant goose, greater white-fronted goose, tundra swan or a few cackling geese join the gangs of Canadas on that pond and the surrounding meadow, but not all at once. Those different kinds of waterfowl add spice to Canada goose flocks.
Twice-daily, geese fly to nearby corn and winter grain fields, and pastures, to eat waste corn kernels, and the green shoots of grain plants and short grass. Their spectacular flocks taking off from the water and meadows are as noisy as their landings. And each group follows the same aerial highway as their fellows to the feeding fields and back.
Annually, during February and March, several ducks of a few kinds gather on this pond. More than 50 green-winged teal, most in pairs, and a few pairs each of mallards, black ducks, American wigeons and northern pintails join the geese on the impoundment. These ducks "tip-up" with tails pointing skyward and beaks down to scrape algae and other aquatic plants from the mud bottom of the shallow water. Wigeons also eat blades of grass, as geese do, but mallards, black ducks, teal and pintails fly to harvested corn fields to feed on corn kernels.
During April and May, several kinds of north-bound sandpipers and plovers break from their migration to gather on the muddy shores and shallow water of this pond along Mill Creek to eat aquatic invertebrates they pull from the mud. Post-breeding shorebirds do the same through late summer and fall when flying south from their northern breeding grounds.
Shorebirds collecting at this impoundment, and others across America, include least, pectoral, semi-palmated, solitary and spotted sandpipers, lesser and greater yellowlegs, and killdeer and semi-palmated plovers. Sandpipers and plovers often fly up from the mud in mixed groups and speed in flight around the pond a few times, all turning together one way, which shows their brown backs, then twisting in unison another way, which flashes their white bellies, without collision, and reminding me of semaphores. Then the flock lands again, like pebbles tossed across the mud.
But mostly, sandpipers poke their long beaks into the mud of shores and under shallow water to get aquatic worms, insects and other invertebrates, while plovers consume those critters from surfaces of mud and water. Different feeding techniques reduce competition for food between sandpipers and plovers so both shorebirds can feed on the same mud flats at the same time.
This pond is valuable to migrant water-loving birds in spring and fall. Many staging areas of this type are scattered across North America, some of them natural, while others are human-made. But all are intriguing to visit at the right times of year.
Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a naturalist for the Lancaster County Department of Parks and Recreation. Email him at email@example.com.