This winter is turning out to be the winter of the Ross’s Goose in the Piedmont of North Carolina. While still considered to be a semi-rare vagrant in the state, at least away from the massive Snow Goose flocks in the east, the increase in records shouldn’t be terribly surprising given the explosion that Snow and Ross’s Geese populations have seen in recent years. I don’t think anyone, however, quite expected the glut of Ross’s Geese found these first couple weeks of December. The birds seem to be everywhere, with at least 4 in the western Piedmont (not counting a couple unconfirmed, but compelling, reports) and another two in the east. All have been found hanging out among migratory Canada Geese that are slowly filling into the state this month, and given these geese’s penchant for shuttling around to the many small farm ponds in the area it’s hard to say precisely how many Ross’s Geese are around. Potentially, there are a lot.
Last week I saw two different individuals in two adjacent counties in one day. For an obsessive county lister like myself, this is akin to finding a $100 bill on the ground. Twice. In one day. Or something (I feel like there’s a better metaphor out there, but I can’t find it now). The problem with so many Ross’s Geese in the area is that we are seeing heretofore unheard of invoking of The Hybrid Theory.
As we all know, every single Ross’s Goose is subject to speculation, however absurdly realized, that it is actually a Ross’s x Snow Goose hybrid. This is either because no one can truly believe that there are so many Ross’s Geese around (though it’d happen with just one, too), or because people want to build their reputation by throwing shade at other birders. In any case, why we should automatically assume that an uncommon bird would be just as likely to be a extremely rare hybrid is beyond me. Think about it, Snow and Ross’s Geese are known to hybridize “regularly”, but what this really means is that it happens about 2-4% of the time. That’s more than an order of magnitude less likely than a pure Ross’s Goose (or pure enough), and would seem to me to require a great deal of evidence to defend such an assertion.
But that never happens with Ross’s Goose. Oftentimes the merest suggestion of goose miscegenation is enough to get people worked up. And once the hybrid train is out of the station it’s really hard to turn it around, as I had learned before with a previous Ross’s Goose.
So anyway, the first goose that fateful day was a long-staying bird at a park in Rockingham County, to the north of Greensboro. It had been hanging out in a Canada Goose flock that also periodically contained a Greater White-fronted Goose, so I was aiming for two geese for the price of one. The latter was nowhere to be seen (and hasn’t been seen since), but the former was still present, still Ross-y, and as good a ROGO as you’re likely to see. Nice small, triangular bill, domed head, straight line between the face and the bill. It all checks out.
While working that same day, feeling rather pleased with myself about picking up a county tick in Rockingham County, I got word on Facebook that there was a Ross’s Goose in Guilford County now, fortunately not more than 10 minutes from my kid’s school. So I picked him up and we headed down to High Point where we found, after a bit of searching, this Ross’s Goose hanging out among (what else?) Canadas at an office-park pond.
This was an objectively better bird, mostly because it was a home county tick, which any county birder can tell you is the best kind of county tick aside from the ones with double zeros at the end. To my eyes it looks fine for Ross’s Goose, but it wasn’t more than a few hours that a respected local birder merely commented offhand that the bill was a bit longer than one might expect. That’s it. And soon afterwards the local listserv was humming with speculation about things that are completely within the regular realm of Ross’s Goose but are suddenly suspect. This bird has a grin-patch so it’s part SNGO (Ross’s Goose does have a grin patch). The bird has a long bill so it’s part SNGO (Ross’s Goose expresses sexual dimorphism, males are larger with larger bills). And all this despite the fact that every other mark is definitively Ross’s Goose, but again, once the train has left the station…
I am not, I hasten to point out, calling anyone out on this. But in a time and place in the birding culture where idle speculation becomes common knowledge so dang quickly, maybe we should be a little more careful with the former. See the recent Japanese Murrelet incident for further evidence. Alls I know is that I’m counting both of these as Ross’s Goose with absolutely no qualms. Ticks times two.