Southern Illinois hunter downs ‘outfitted’ goose

Belle Rive, Ill. — What began as a simple snow goose hunt quickly turned into a geography lesson and a reminder of the extent that waterfowl species “get around.”

This much Matt Griswold now knows: a lesser snow goose that began its journey in August near the Arctic Circle flew south to the Canadian prairies of Saskat­chewan before entering the United States at North Dakota. From there, the goose spent some time in South Dakota, then journeyed even farther south to Branson, Mo. It made a quick trip over to Stuttgart, Ark. – and when it decided it was time to head back north, the goose flew up through the bootheel of Missouri. 

On Feb. 16 – roughly five months after it left northern Canada – the goose entered Illinois and happened through Belle Rive in Jefferson County, a short hop from Mt. Vernon.
Enter Griswold.

A teacher at Wayne City High School, the 34-year-old hunting enthusiast was spending the President’s Day holiday goose hunting in the pit, which is used by fellow hunters at his church.

“I was hunting alone when the goose came in and I downed it,” Griswold, a native of Edwards County, said. “Right away I noticed it was leg-banded. But it was more than just banded. The goose had a transmitter attached to its torso.”

And this is how Griswold would learn about the goose’s long and winding flight path.

“I called the number on the leg band, and they asked me if any other tracking device was attached to the goose,” Griswold said. “For the first time ever, I was able to say ‘yes, there is something else.’”

The transmitter did not have a phone number linking it to any specific research group or agency. But there was a number for the company that built the transmitter. Griswold called that number and was directed to a researcher in Canada who was conducting a special – and exclusive – study of lesser snow geese.

“I ended up speaking to a woman in Canada who was in charge,” he said. “She told me that there were only 20 of the snow geese in the world that had that transmitter, and that I was the first hunter to call. She told me it had been banded in northern Canada, almost up to the Arctic Circle.”

Curious about how the goose – an adult female – made it more than 3,000 miles south, Griswold began asking questions.

The researcher was able to provide something better than vague answers.

“She sent me a link to Google Earth that mapped out the goose’s specific course – that information came from the transmitter,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing. That goose really got around.”

What Griswold learned is that after the transmitter was attached to the goose, the bird’s location – latitude and longitude – was tracked every six hours. The information was uploaded via satellite every two days and stored for future study.

A number of studies are being conducted on snow geese due to an over-population in some Canadian provinces. Researchers in Canada and the U.S. are teaming up to learn about the bird’s migration habits and what attracts them to certain regions during certain times of the year.

Snow geese seen in the U.S. typically breed in coastal locations anywhere from Siberia to the far northern coasts of Alaska and Canada, and eastward to Greenland, but they tend to migrate fairly straight southward, not across the continent. Some snow geese winter as far south as Mexico.

The lesser snow goose predominates in western and central Canada, whereas greater snow geese breed in eastern Canada and Greenland.
Snow geese breed from late May to mid-August, but they leave their nesting areas and spend more than half the year on their migration to and from warmer wintering areas. During spring migration, large flocks of snow geese fly very high along narrow corridors, sometimes more than 3,000 miles from traditional wintering areas to the tundra.

The lesser snow goose travels through the Central Flyway, across Midwest farmland. Traditionally, the geese wintered in coastal marsh areas where they used their short but very strong bills to dig the roots of marsh grasses for dinner. 

According to researchers who have studied the geese, the initial transition was to rice fields, where the geese could graze on weeds and eat the grain left behind by combines. A decade later, the geese had mastered field feeding and had diversified into wheat, corn, sorghum and practically any other field grain they encountered. 

The geese had also begun to graze in fall-seeded grain fields, especially winter wheat. 

Snow geese now feed in grain fields as soon as they reach the Canadian prairies in September, and they continue to use agricultural fields until they leave the prairies in April and May on their way to Arctic breeding areas.

Many biologists think the shift in winter feeding has led to the over-abundance of geese. Banding programs typically get reports of geese taken in Illinois. 

But geese with transmitters, like the one shot by Griswold, are extremely rare.

To that end, Griswold plans to get the goose mounted – with the transmitter in place. 

But it won’t be the actual transmitter that he found on the goose.

“During my conversation, the topic of getting the transmitter back to the research team came up, and they offered to send me an exact replica so I could use it on the mount,” he explained. “Apparently the real transmitter is very expensive, as I can imagine. So as soon as they send the replica, I will mail it back to them.”

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