Geese set record for early return at Oak Hammock Marsh

Canada geese returned to Oak Hammock Marsh Feb. 21, the earliest return the centre has tracked in 22 years.

The previous record was set on Feb. 28, 2000, said Jacques Bourgeois, marketing co-ordinator at Oak Hammock.

Geese like to wait until there's open water and access to food sources left from last year; that's usually in mid-March, and as late as early April.

"But the 21st of February is by far the earliest they've come back," he said.

"We had quite a few come back that first day, and more the next day, but then the temperature dropped again and we haven't seen many since."

Some of the geese wanted to get a jump on the best territory, Bourgeois said.

"They want to stake and claim their territory. They want to make sure that nobody else will come here. The migration is quite different in the fall than in the spring. In the fall, they're very friendly, they share space. But in the spring, they're very territorial. So they won't let other geese stay in their spot," he said.

"We haven't seen that behaviour yet, so I guess they're not quite ready to nest. But that will come pretty soon, actually."

Some of the birds will just take a stopover to feed and rest on their way as far north as Churchill.

Last December, geese stayed in Winnipeg as late as Dec. 9.

"It's been a very, very strange winter," Bourgeois said.

Geese have been coming back a little earlier every year, he said, but it's too soon to say if it's a long-term trend.

"We can't really say for sure it's linked to climate change," he said, noting that last year's winter and spring were also weird, with an early spring.

"But the geese didn't come as early [last year] as they did this year," he said.

Another cold snap could confuse the birds.

"When the birds get here they're starving, they really need that food that was left over from last fall in the field. And if it gets all covered up again, if it gets frozen, it's pretty hard to retrieve," he said.

"A typical good spring would be when everything starts melting … that would be a good spring for them. The conditions we're experiencing right now are a little more challenging for the birds, for sure."