“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!” –Tim Healy, February 1, 2016
Sometimes, I say things. Sometimes, those things are not correct. Past-Tim, sitting comfortably on his early Long Island goose sweep, could not have predicted that the geese had yet to be truly released. I had no idea that my lifer Pink-footed Goose would be blown out of the water by the confiding, long-staying bird Dad discovered at Hendrickson Park. I didn’t know that more Ross’s Geese would show up along the Nassau/Suffolk border almost a full year later. All things considered, I should not be surprised that this year would not go out without a little extra excitement.
As December wound down, I made plans to milk the last days of 2016 for a small-scale trip. Nature delivered a spread of tantalizing opportunities. I considered the prospect of searching for rare gulls at Niagara Falls or boreal birds in the Adirondacks, but I was leaning towards driving out to the end of Cape Cod and seawatching for marine species. Ben gave me some great tips for making the most of this trip, and Frank told me that he would be happy to come along if I was willing to pick him up in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was staying with family. Deal. The itinerary was set. As it happens, Frank was not the only unusual visitor in Providence at the time. A rare goose had been reported there the previous week: a different goose, a ninth goose, a “really exceptional” goose.
These guys are small time in comparison!
The Graylag Goose is one of the ancestral species that gave rise to our standard barnyard geese, one of the earliest animals to be domesticated by humans. Their modern cousins are bulky, ungainly creatures that are often hybridized with other types of geese. The natural, wild Graylag is common across Eurasia, and domestic geese are frequently seen at ponds and parks throughout America. This makes the matter of true vagrancy, now so well-documented for other Old World species like the Barnacle and Pink-foot, difficult to ascertain. There are fewer than five records of Graylags in North America that have been accepted as proper wanderers from across the pond, marking it as a Code 5 bird, an “accidental” species. The Rhode Island individual, in terms of structure, plumage, and circumstances was looking like a promising candidate.
The drive to Watchemoket Cove in Providence was largely uneventful, and sadly the same could be said of my vigil waiting for the goose that afternoon. I stayed until sunset, trading stories with other traveling birders, and the Graylag failed to show up before it got too dark to see. I was bummed to start the trip on a low note, especially because I was hoping to achieve the mostly-joking goal I’d set of finding a Code 5 this year. Several of my birder friends have seen at least one (like Brendan and his fancy Gray-hooded Gull, Western Reef-Heron, and provisional Hooded Crow), but I would’ve guessed it would come from the Rio Grande Valley or my pelagic trip with Shearwater Journeys rather than just outside the capital of Rhode Island. Once night had fallen, I collected Frank and we set about our road trip. Good food, good drinks, good tunes, good times. We settled in for the night at a hotel in Hyannis, and we awoke early to make tracks for Race Point ahead of sunrise.
This was my first time birding on the Cape, and it was not a disappointment. It was, however, a struggle. The wind off the sea was strong, and the scope tripod, which I had stretched to maximum height, was wobbling and occasionally falling apart. I started birding before first light, but the first two hours or so were limited largely to binoculars while the incapacitated scope stood uselessly at my side. There was a good deal of activity close to shore, including hundreds of mergansers, flocks of scoters, several Iceland Gulls, and my first Black-legged Kittiwakes since Alaska in 2008. There were also Harbor Seals moving through the surf, and I was surprised to see whales spouting beyond the breakers several times.
Unfortunately, my target birds were less cooperative. I was hoping to see alcids, and until things brightened up there were none to be seen. When the flocks finally showed up, they were moving by too far out to be seen well with binoculars. I ended up relocating and discovering another birder sitting at the edge of the dunes. Taking his cue, I condensed my scope to a more compact size and took a seat. The seawatching improved dramatically, and I was able to make out lines upon lines of Razorbills flying by. Most of them were still pretty far out, so it was difficult to sift through them for murres and Dovekies. I thoroughly enjoyed my morning, but the littlest auk will have to wait for another day.
Frank had taken a walk into town for some coffee, but he rejoined me in time to see the whales and most of the interesting bird species. We loaded up the car and grabbed some lunch just after 11, turning the car back towards Providence. When my phone thawed out, I saw that the Graylag had returned to the cove while I was seawatching. Frank was dropped off at his temporary home, bringing an end to a delightful catch-up with my old band buddy. I headed down the road to the stakeout spot, twisting in my seat because the latest update had reported the goose flying out and disappearing. I parked, set up, and scoped the flock of Canadas feeding on the golf course adjacent to the cove. To my surprise and delight, a gray-necked, orange-billed bird was clearly visible among its more common cousins. Bingo. What’s more, I spotted a previously reported Black-headed Gull snoozing on the mudflats nearby, much less photogenic than the individual seen recently back home.
I had the Graylag Goose to myself at first, but other birders soon arrived. I shared the good news with them and was met with smiles and exclamations. One of the best parts of birding is putting other people on a new bird. We kept tabs on the presumed Eurasian visitor as it wandered the hilly terrain of the course, feeding as it strolled about. A pair of golfers passing close to the gaggle of geese flushed them, and I kept a close eye on the Graylag as it nervously prepared to take off. It suddenly spread striking, silvery wings and launched into the air with a distinctive, high-pitched call. The two-note honk clearly cut through the chorus of Canadas, and the bird peeled off from the rest of the flock and flew towards us.
I swear, this bird was completely transformed when it took to the air. It’s a new bird, and a rare bird, but while it looks good for a legitimate vagrant it still is, fundamentally, quite similar to a typical farm goose. Seeing the dramatic contrast of its flight feathers and hearing that wild, echoing cry stirred an unexpected reaction in me. I was impressed. I know that avian records committees don’t take romanticized anecdotes as evidence when considering the provenance of a bird, but seeing this goose slowly circle the cove alone convinced me: Yes. This is a creature that absolutely could have crossed the sea to arrive here.
The bird skidded to a stop in the muck between the green and the road, vocalizing repeatedly as it walked back towards the Canada Geese that had settled further down the highway. I took personal note of the individual features that add up to make this bird a contender for an accepted natural record. The hind toes, often clipped in captive birds, were visible and fully intact. The overall form of the bird was trim and lean compared to the keel-shaped pot belly of domesticated individuals. It was marginally smaller than many of the nearby Canadas, and its plumage was a dead-ringer for the original outfits of the species, without any unseemly patches of color. The flight feathers that effortlessly bore it aloft were untrimmed and didn’t show any excess wear. The bill was bright orange with a pale nail, though it was admittedly at the larger end of the spectrum for what’s normal in a wild specimen. The debate about where this Graylag came from will likely require more evidence and more time to be concluded, and the experts will certainly have lots to deliberate on. I submitted a Rhode Island Avian Records Committee report including my photos and observations, and I’ve been informed that my offerings will be taken into consideration. Gotta do my part to support my Code 5!
It was hard to pull myself away from the happy crowd of assembled birders and the unusual goose, but I wanted to start back towards home before it got too late. I briefly stopped at a local bar for an appropriate celebratory ale: a good old Goose Island IPA.
With only a few days left in 2016, I’m pretty sure this provisional tick is my final lifer of the year. That makes for a pretty sweet bookend with my first new bird of the year, the ever-charming Pink-footed Goose. When my new second edition Sibley Guide arrived this January, I spent a lot of time looking at the page where these two species stand side-by-side. I had seen my first Pink-foot only days before, but I never would’ve guessed that I’d see the adjacent goose on American soil before the year was through. Only time will tell if this promising candidate is officially recognized and accepted by the powers that be, but for me it counted in the important ways. It felt like I was seeing a new, exciting, natural creature, and in the end it was well-worth the wild goose chase it sent me on. I’m certainly rooting for it to join the record books as a real rarity, more for the validation of its presumed impressive journey than a check on my life list.
Edit: More evidence and documentation is coming in, and the case against this bird as a wild vagrant is unfortunately gaining steam. I’m leaving my post unaltered. Call it hope, call it wishful thinking, call it a monument to my gut reaction. I still had a lot of fun going after this bird no matter the outcome of with the records committee.
Year List Update, December 28 – 409 Species(+1) (+ Black-legged Kittiwake, Graylag Goose[provisional])