Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The wild goose chase: a rite of winter birding

In New Jersey, the onset of winter brings the spectre of the wild goose chase.

"What?" I can hear you wondering. "Why would anyone make the effort to see geese when they seem to be everywhere?" As any casual observer or office park manager will attest, they've become fixtures in New Jersey, much to the frustration of anyone who's dodged, uh, goose bombs while on a stroll.

Thing is, some pretty remarkable birds are out there if you take the time to look. Some of the Canada Geese you see in the winter months actually are from the northern reaches of the continent, though they might not look that much different from the Jersey guys. Flocks migrate south as their ancestors have done for centuries, sometimes mixing in with the resident population to loiter at athletic fields or farm acreage dotted with mown-down, decaying cornstalks. And with those 'foreign' flocks sometimes come the proverbial needles in the haystack: the rare goose species that literally made a wrong turn at Greenland. Best guess is that some of the "not like the others" birds get caught up in a southbound flock and decide to stick with it rather than attempt to find others of their own species.

The Greater White-Fronted Goose, courtesy
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Gary Kramer
That's what makes them so attractive to a doggedly persistent breed of birders. There are folks who will stand at the edge of a big field, using a spotting scope to scan hundreds, if not thousands of Canada Geese in the hopes of finding a stray Greater White-Fronted, Pink-Footed or Barnacle goose. Those out for a real challenge will seek out a Cackling Goose, which looks essentially like a smaller, shorter-necked Canada Goose. It's a hobby that's not for the faint of heart, especially when you're struggling to hold your ground against arctic-temperature gusts as you slowly scan a massive flock that won't stand still.

That's why I was relieved to hear about the presence of not one, but four different rare goose species frequenting fields over the weekend. Reports were that a Pink-Footed and a Ross' Goose were sighted at two locations in Wall Township. We needed both for the year. Another Pink-Footed was said to be with a Barnacle and a Greater White-Fronted on a farm in Monroe, but we chose to head for the shore instead.

The Pink-Footed is a relatively new visitor to New Jersey; the first sighting of the species was in Bergen County less than four years ago. It ordinarily winters in Great Britain or the Netherlands after breeding in Greenland, but the word seems to be out in the Pink-Footed community that New Jersey is a welcoming place. The species has already been sighted in a few places around the state this fall. From my relatively novice perspective, it's a welcome visitor, as it's easily distinguishable within a big flock of Canadas: it lacks the white chinstrap and black neck, preferring shades of brown instead. And, of course, its feet and legs are pink.

The Ross' Goose, I knew, would stick out like a sore thumb: it's nearly all white. The only other bird you might confuse it for is the larger Snow Goose, so I was good with ID as long as none of the bigger guys was there.

We set off at mid-morning and promptly ended up at, well, the wrong spot due to a miscalculation by yours truly (long story short, mea culpa). After roaming a few spots on the Shark River estuary, we grabbed a late breakfast in Belmar and stopped to check out Wreck Pond in Spring Lake. While there was a fine assortment of ducks, a Great Blue Heron and Great Egret, the only geese were Canadas, a couple of Snow Geese and a pair of domesticated Egyptians (cool, but not countable).

Somewhere in our wandering, we found some birding acquaintances who pointed us in the right direction. The Pink-Footed, it turns out, was seen in a few places within about a mile of the location we'd originally tried to find. Perhaps if we went back and made a right turn instead of a left at a crucial intersection, we'd find the bird. Worked for us. We had about two hours of daylight left -- not a lot of time.

Sometimes finding the bird is a matter of finding the birders first. We got to the first place in the directions to discover several cars pulled over on the shoulder against a broad grassy field, with several spotting scopes already pointed toward a large flock of geese. Pay dirt. The assembled birders told us that both the Ross' and the Pink-Footed were milling among the hundreds of Canadas on the slope just above the pond.

I got the Ross' Goose without trying too hard, its whiteness a stark contrast to the assorted black and browns of the Canadas. The Pink-Footed was a bit harder, but it wasn't long before Ivan had it spotted with the scope. At one point, the two rarities were so close together they could be seen well without moving the scope at all. Considering it was my first time seeing the Ross' and the third time for the Pink-Footed, it was a sight to remember. We could head home with the satisfaction of a successful wild goose chase.

But, for me, the adventure wasn't quite over.

Ivan was committed to do a Christmas Bird Count on Sunday, so I was on my own. What the heck, I thought. I'll head to Monroe and see if I could spot the Barnacle or the Greater White-Fronted. The Pink-Footed would be a nice bonus, but thanks to our sighting in Wall, I wasn't particularly concerned about finding it.

I knew I was heading into an iffy situation, but I was fairly confident about my chances. As I got off the Turnpike and drove past the cluster of senior housing developments just off Exit 8A, I considered my situation. I was heading out badly equipped: Ivan had the sighting scope. But, I figured, if the birds were present, there would be birders with scopes there, too.

Indeed, when I reached the area and made the turn to drive along the edge of the designated field, this is what I was confronted with:

The farm field in Monroe. Those black spots are all geese. Your guess is as good as mine.
Yup: an undulating cornfield with a conservative estimate of several hundred geese milling about, pecking at the ground, a couple hundred yards away. To make matters worse, the farmer seemed to have cut the cornstalks a little higher than average, giving the geese more space to hide. The two birders already there had a spotting scope but were packing up. They hadn't found anything: not the Barnacle, not the Greater White-Fronted, not the Pink-Footed. Me, with my decent but not spectacular binoculars? I figured I'd stick around and see what happened.

Luckily, a few minutes later another birder showed up, though he also lacked a scope. Together we scanned what we could see from our vantage points, until he announced, "I think I have something." The Greater White-Fronted Goose happened to be scanning the space between two cornrows that ended right about where the birder was standing. The result was a nearly perfect though distant view, as long as the bird stopped for a moment or two. After he gave me a couple of landmarks to gauge from, I found the bird in question and agreed, first that it wasn't a Canada from the orangey legs, and then, after a few frustrating attempts to see its neck and face, I was sure.  

Satisfied that the identification was a strong one, I decided enough was plenty. Finding the Barnacle Goose in that flock would be enough of a challenge in good light, and the combination of clouds and early-setting sun were not my friends that day. Add to that, the Barnacle's plumage is nominally close enough to the Canada's, so playing the avian version of "one of these things is not like the others" wouldn't serve me well.

The fates seemed to want to give me one last treat before I headed home. Just as I was turning the car around, I noticed a slender raptor gliding overhead, toward the field of geese. Pulling over again and jumping out of the car with my binoculars, I tried to confirm my suspicion that the bird was, indeed, a harrier. The setting and the behavior was right, I considered as the bird decreased its altitude to coast just several feet above the field, but with the light and distance I couldn't call it definitively. As in so many other cases before, I couldn't be sure what I'd seen. All I knew was that I'd enjoyed seeing it.

(FYI, photos of the Pink-Footed, Barnacle and Cackling geese mentioned here are available with an article on Pete Bacinski's excellent All Things Birds blog on the New Jersey Audubon website.)

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