To those who have seen it, the cottongrass means beauty and perhaps a dried flower arrangement. But to a snow goose, the plant means fat, energy, and survival. To get it, thousands of these birds fly hundreds of miles to dine at a very special table - the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The geese come from their nesting grounds in Canada. They gather on the Refuge and the Canadian coastal plain for only a few weeks in late August and September.
Having just raised their young, the adult geese are low on energy. The young geese are still growing. All of the birds need to put on fat quickly. Why? Winter storms will soon drive them south along Canada^s Mackenzie River to California and Mexico. When the geese leave, they^ll fly nonstop more than 1,200 miles before they rest and feed again. The fat will supply the energy they need.
The geese get much of it by eating the underground stem bases of cottongrass, a highly nutritious and digestible plant food. They look for areas of wet tundra where there are few other plants growing.
The birds feed like crazy - up to 16 hours a day. They eat as much as a third of their weight every day, increasing their body fat by 400% in only two to three weeks - the same as a 150 pound person gaining 30 pounds of fat.
The geese gather in different places each fall. In some years, many of the birds feed on the Refuge coastal plain, often between the Okpilak and Aichilik rivers. In other years, a majority stay on the coastal plain in Canada. Numbers seen on the Refuge range from 13,000 to more than 300,000 birds.
Good cottongrass feeding sites are small, patchy, and widely dispersed; there^s never much food at one place. The sites make up only about three percent of the Refuge coastal plain. Snow geese, especially young birds, need access to large, undisturbed areas so they can find these sites and get enough food - and fat - to survive migration.
The patchwork of gold and crimson tundra, the cool, crisp air, the waves of snow-white birds against a cobalt blue sky - together this is what makes fall on the coastal plain such a magical time, and the Arctic Refuge such a wonderful and important place.