Friday, January 6, 2012

A goose we wanted to find: the Greater White-Fronted at Duke Island Park

"What are you doing this afternoon? There's a greater white-fronted goose in Bridgewater."

Sometimes you have to put everything aside and go after a chase bird, even if it means you'll probably be scanning a huge flock of grounded Canada geese. That's why I said yes to Ivan and made the trip to Duke Island Park on Wednesday. As I mentioned in a past post, I've joined the insanity of keeping a life list, and this new goose would be an addition for me.

Bordered by the Raritan River and traversed by the Raritan Water Power Canal, Duke Island Park is an active recreation area, with several picnic areas, a bandstand and a couple of ballfields as well as some hiking trails. The weather was cold and blustery when we visited, so the only other park users were some dog walkers and a runner or two. Odds were good, then, that our birding would be uninterrupted by others who might inadvertently flush out the species we were looking for.

Two gatherings of multitudes of geese were visible as soon as we drove into the park, one being within binocular range of the road. No greater white-fronted goose there, and no place nearby to park to get to the other flock easily. We'd have to drive several hundred feet farther to deposit the car, which normally isn't a problem, but in this cold it felt like an imposition. Hopefully our investment in frostbitedness would pay off.

Maybe in a typical winter, the 20 degree temperature wouldn't have seemed so bad, but given the unusual warmth this season, it felt downright polar. I was bundled in a parka with ski gloves, plus a hood that covered my Elmer-Fudd-type polar-tec baseball cap with ear flaps, all of which made it hard to hear or to focus my binoculars appropriately. Conversation went something like this (from my perspective):

Ivan:  *sounds like Charlie Brown's teacher*
Me: (pulling up earflaps and straining) "Huh?"
Ivan: "Wow, it's cold."

In all honesty, it took maybe five minutes to walk from car to vantage area for that second set of geese. I found myself regretting that I hadn't taken another look at the bird in the guide so I'd be sure to spot the right one. Then I remembered that the best course of action was to play the old Sesame Street "one of these things is not like the others" game: spot the one goose that looked out of place. Unlike a cackling goose or a brant, the greater white-fronted looks nothing like a Canada; the only white on its upper body is the facial outline around the base of the bill, and its legs are an orangey yellow. It should stand out like a sore thumb in any flock of standard lawn geese.

It didn't take long for me to find it in the flock, and yes, I was the one to find it (yeah, me!), innocently plucking through grass with its Canada cousins. Life bird for me, year bird for Ivan. While not once-in-a-lifetime rare in the Eastern US, these guys show much more frequently out west, making them a nice find in New Jersey. We were also fortunate to see a pair of killdeer scouring the ground nearby, the sound of their voices a nice treat for the afternoon.

While we were there, we checked out the Raritan but found only a huge flock of Canada geese going with the flow and a determined pair of mallard ducks swimming against traffic. The nearby trees and brush were far more productive, with red-bellied woodpeckers, plenty of juncos and nuthatches, and a bonus brown creeper to add to my life list. All in all, our impromptu trip netted some great January finds and a promising new birding spot to revisit in the spring. Not bad, overall!

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