The calls start coming in around Valentine’s Day. The question is always the same: Are the birds there yet?
So it goes at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, an oasis in the middle of the farm belt that stretches across Pennsylvania’s Lebanon and Lancaster counties.
It is here, at a 400-acre lake surrounded by 1,700 acres of hiking trails, roads and fields, that thousands of swans and snow geese come every year.
They stay anywhere from two weeks to six, fueling up on corn stubble and winter wheat from the farms in this mid-Atlantic breadbasket. When the snow begins to melt, they take flight by the thousands.
The tundras head to the North Slope of Alaska, soaring over the Great Lakes and the western mountains. By the time their journey is done, they will have crossed three distinct flyways and traveled more than 5,000 miles. The snow geese leave Middle Creek for the Great Lakes, then travel up the St. Lawrence Seaway to Baffin Island at the top of Quebec.
Sometime between Feb. 28 and March 10, the birds take flight, a gaggle honking through a sky filled with nothing but wings and white. The white birds against the crystalline lake are the stuff of coffee-table photo books. Indeed, many photographers come early, their long lenses strapped to their shoulders, to catch the winter dance. Nearly a quarter of all the snow geese that winter in the mid-Atlantic stop at Middle Creek, making it possibly the best birding area you’ve never heard about.
Swans and snow geese have always flocked to southeastern Pennsylvania, seeking grasses to fill up so they are in the best shape of their lives for the breeding season when they reach their homes in the north. But it has only been in the last two decades that they have discovered Middle Creek. After Tropical Storm Isabel destroyed the underwater Bay grasses in the Susquehanna Flats, more of the birds pushed north into Washington Boro and Columbia in Lancaster County.
From late January until March, drivers can see the swans and snow geese in area parks and farm fields from Hershey to Harrisburg and across the quarries of the Lehigh Valley.
Middle Creek also offers dedicated hiking trails, fishing opportunities, a museum and visitors center that highlights the different waterfowl and how to identify them, and a defined loop for a driving tour. Plus, it’s free, thanks to the fees that hunters pay to the Pennsylvania Game Commission for management of the land.
Any tour of Middle Creek should start at the visitor’s center, which is just off Hopewell Road/Kleinfeltersville Road on Museum Drive. Take a look at the cases filled with taxidermied birds, and marvel at the photographs of thousands of birds in flight. Stop at the expansive window and borrow a pair of binoculars. This will help you figure out where the action is.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission has owned the land where Middle Creek sits since 1929; it opened as a hunting preserve in the 1970s. As befits a game preserve, Middle Creek is managed primarily for wildlife. Areas are occasionally off-limits because of controlled burns or hunts, though tundra swans are not part of the hunting.
To protect wildlife, fishing is only allowed on a small part of the lake.
But human visitors are unlikely to complain.
“We come here every year,” said Hiram Munger, a bird enthusiast from Allentown, PA, about 90 miles away. Munger loves the swans, but also the mergansers, ring-necked ducks, herons and bluebirds. It was at Middle Creek, he said, where he saw his first ruddy duck.
If you happen to visit when temperatures are not below freezing, try walking the property. A good place to start is the Willow Point Trail, an easy stroll that overlooks much of the lake. About five minutes into the walk, you will have a chance to see tundra swans gliding on the open water. There is a pavilion with great views of the lake, which is one of several fine spots at Middle Creek for a picnic.
Those who want a longer hike can try the Millstone Trail, which is about a mile over some steep terrain but offers a mountain view. A discarded millstone at the top of the hill is a monument to the rock once quarried from this part of the preserve.
Back along Millstone Road toward the visitors center is the Red Rock Picnic Area and fishing area. Fishing from the shoreline is allowed all year, and species include bass, crappies and catfish, according to the Game Commission’s website. From this part of Middle Creek, visitors can see the dam impoundment, which looks like a horizontal waterfall.
Over here, visitors will find the ducks that prefer shallow water, as the lake is only about 8 feet deep.
There is a self-guided driving tour of Middle Creek’s paved roads, but it runs from March 1 through September, so the birds may already be gone by the time it opens.
Middle Creek may not be a well-known spot throughout the Chesapeake, but it’s beloved in Lebanon and Lancaster counties. Schoolchildren take field trips to watch the birds, and regulars come for regular days out with their grandkids or even dates.
Middle Creek Manager Jim Binder wants to make sure the preserve remains as it is for generations to come. To that end, he has organized the Middle Creek Initiative, a consortium of nonprofits and government agencies that seek to protect the farm fields around the preserve, which contains most of the birds’ food. The initiative’s founders hope that, through easements, they will be able to protect enough acreage from development to keep the birds — and the people — flocking to Middle Creek for years to come.