Is you is or is you ain’t a Ross’s Goose
Last Friday, as I fulfilled my online duties after work at a nearby coffee shop, I received an intriguing e-mail from a Cary birder who happened to read this blog. Jennifer was up on my local Big year attempt, and she had an interesting goose hanging out with the local Canadas in a small pond in her neighborhood. She sent along photos of a small white goose with a roundish head. It was as if she had subconsciously known how to compose an e-mail genetically designed to pique my interest. Yes, obviously any white goose in the Triangle is sort of a big deal and a bird I want to see. And better, Ross’s Goose is a long-time nemesis for me. A bird I have tried, and failed, on many occasions to come across at the traditional spot in the state, Pocosin Lake NWR, a site that annually hosts several tens of thousands of Snow Geese, within which, if you’re lucky, you might be able to turn up their smaller, rarer, cuter, relative. Needless to say, I’ve never even sniffed them despite multiple attempts.
“Sure,” says I, “that’s an interesting bird. I’ll swing by tomorrow morning if you’d be so kind as to let me know when the bird return to the pond”.
I planned my birding outing Saturday morning to be near Cary, heading to Lake Crabtree State Park. The birding was pretty good for a late October weekend. Warblers I still moving through, and I found a few Cape Mays, a couple Black-throated Blues, some lingering and unexpected Blackpolls. I ran into local birder Thierry Besancon, a french guy who lives in Wake County. He’s been seeing some incredible birds at Crabtree, his local patch, this fall and I figured tagging along with him might net me something interesting. We walked down a path chatting, as birders do, and I let him in on the fact that I had a hot tip on a Ross’s Goose in Wake County. This was a life bird for Thierry. He was intrigued. When I got the email from Jennifer letting me know the flock had returned and the little white goose was with it, I asked if he wanted to come along. We left nearly immediately.
The pond was in a fairly unremarkable housing development in the very corner of Wake County. The flock of geese were lounging along the grass and in the water, and the little white goose stood out immediately. Thierry and I congratulated ourselves at the totally easy tick of our life Ross’s Goose.
We ran into Jennifer not long afterwards (Hi, Jennifer, if you’re reading this!), and chatted about the complete unpredictability of vagrant geese and how fortunate we all were that 1) she knew she was looking at something special and 2) she had someone to contact about it (note to all Triangle area readers of this blog, please do email me if you have, say, a Cinnamon Teal or something coming to your neighborhood pond. Thanks in advance). I got some photos, and agreed to post it on the listserv because Ross’s Goose, particularly in the Piedmont, is really a bird that people are going to want to know about.
That’s when things got interesting.
I admit, from the start, that the bird did not look like a “classic” Ross’s Goose. The bill looks a tad long, admittedly, and there does appear to be a “grin patch”, a dark line between the mandibles, that is one of the hallmarks of Snow Goose, a close relative with which Ross’s Goose is known to hybridize. The idea of hybrid came up pretty quickly and, I’ll be honest, at first I didn’t know quite how to respond to this having absolutely no experience with Ross’s Goose before this individual (but a lot with Snow Goose).
So I did some research. I blew the dust off the old Pyle guide, I cranked up the google machine, and got to work. This is what I discovered.
Pyle allowed me to comfortably age the bird, and once I got that straightened out I was able to stride confidently into the realm of identification arcana. Despite the fact that there did appear to be some small, and inconsistent depending on the light, grin patch, none of the hybrid birds I saw illustrated anywhere on the web showed as many other overtly Ross’s characteristics as this bird, particularly with regard to the near vertical border between the bill and the face, the overall coloration, and the very small size.
Also, several of the people I corresponded with stated that, in their experience, Ross’s Goose is a bit more “grin-patchy” than is let on in field guides and resources. This is particularly true with juvenile birds. I think, and I agree with one long-time birder who eventually came around to pure Ross’s as opposed to a hybrid bird, that much of the confusion had to do with the fact that this is an age and plumage that is not generally seen in the Carolinas. No one knew quite how to handle it and as such, there was some disagreement.
All’s well that ends well, though, and I’m one lifer richer. Thanks again, Jennifer!