Loud. Large. Messy. Aggressive. Abundant. Canada Geese have a number of qualities that impede positive public relations. The species is up there with cardinals and eagles among the ranks of birds almost everyone recognizes, though instead of admiration they typically inspire disgust or fear. Anyone who’s ever played a field sport where these waterfowl feed or strolled near a pond where they nest probably has a few horror stories. Even birders have a hard time appreciating this noisy, noisome species. Nevertheless, many of us spend hours scanning through flocks of Canadas as they stream overhead or mill about at their roosts and feeding grounds. This has little do with the birds themselves, but rather the company that they keep.
There are more than a dozen other species of “true geese” found around the world. Many of them breed at high northern latitudes and migrate long distances in large flocks when the seasons turn. The noise and numbers of migrating geese make for quite a spectacle. Although birds of a feather tend to flock together, individuals or small family groups often get separated and lost. When this happens, they usually join up with the first flock of familiar faces they find, even those faces don’t perfectly match their own. As a result, large flocks of common, expected goose species can serve as magnets for lonely wanderers. Sifting through skeins of migrants often turns up some surprises, if you’re up for the challenge.
There are three species of goose that intentionally visit New York in large flocks: Canada Goose, Snow Goose, and Brant. Canadas arrive here from different populations to winter and to breed, so we see a lots of variation and “enjoy” their company year-round. Brant are a smaller species that visits our coastline in winter and forms mind-bendingly enormous congregations. Snow Geese come from the high Arctic. A few winter on Long Island, but most pass through in transit, while the Finger Lakes region sees huge concentrations during migration.
My first introduction to the Lost Goose Phenomenon came in the winter of 2007-08. Driving to the grandparents’ house on Christmas, I spotted something white in a flock of Canada at their nearby school fields: a young Snow Goose. Throughout the next few months, I kept catching glimpses of this individual at different locations around south Nassau County. One night its host flock even flew over my house, and I picked out the one white bird among the wild geese flying with the moon on their wings.
At Cornell, the biannual goose migration is a big event for local birders. Early spring in particular is the peak of the hype. After a long, quiet winter with few opportunities for birding, we’d line the slopes and rooftops of campus, waiting for Mother Nature to release the geese. With thousands of Canadas and Snows flying by, the odds of finding rarities was simply a game of numbers. Cackling and Ross’s Geese, the smaller cousins of the two common species, were often spotted by sharp-eyed observers as they made their way back north. Finding them took time and effort, but it was a great way to resharpen birding skills in preparation for the excitement of spring.
I’ve already written two posts talking about goosing this winter. The visiting flocks of North American geese sometimes feature strays from as far afield as Greenland. Greater White-fronted Geese, Barnacle Geese, and Pink-footed Geese sometimes migrate to the wrong continent and fall in with Canadian riffraff. I’d seen all three species this season, and the latter two were lifers. However, the Barnacle was seen in November, so I didn’t have it on my 2016 year list. Another individual has been spotted moving around the North Shore, so Brendan and I took a day to hunt it down. I got much better looks at this handsome bird this time, and I was able to finish the category by checking off the last likely Long Island goose. All 8 species are in the bag, so no more wild goose chases are needed this year. Unless, of course, something really exceptional shows up!
Year List Update, February 1 – 123 species (+ Cooper’s Hawk, Barnacle Goose, Canvasback, Purple Finch)