Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 18, 2009

That’s Snow Regular Goose!

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 6:26 pm

Years ago, a flock of Canada Geese flying overhead meant that winter was either around the corner or that it was over. A honking “V” flock on the move  represented the wild call of the  north and nature’s seasonal pageant all rolled into one. Today, when the sound of a calling Canada Goose greets your ear it simply indicates that you are alive, equipped with hearing, and probably standing near a golf course. It also means that you should be looking down and assessing exactly where you are standing! A vast part of the Canada Goose population no longer migrates south in the winter. They have become a year-round source of fertilizer and companionship. Because of this, it is natural not to pay them too much heed on a day to day basis.

Once in a great while, however, these Canadian flocks will offer up something unusual. Different species or varieties of geese will hang out (or is it “ooht”?) with the locals, eh, and offer up some interesting sightings. Yesterday just such a flock stopped by Lake Erie Metropark along the Detroit River. This flock was a “two-fer”, as a matter of fact – there were two odd birds in the bunch.  I happened to be in the right place at the right time when it was reported that a “snow goose and something else ” was with a small flock of Canadas, so I stopped over to check out the situation. What I, and the others, saw was a dozen or so Canada Geese and two misfits.

The group was grazing on the grass along a seawall, and the small grayish bird on the left (see picture above) stood out like a sore thumb. To make a long story short, it appeared to be an immature Snow Goose. These northern breeders are one of the most common of geese in North America (estimated population at around 2 million birds) but they rarely show up in our eastern neck of the woods. Snows breed in the high north from Wrangle Island in Russia to James Bay, Canada and they migrate south to the west and Gulf coasts of the U.S. and Mexico. This path doesn’t normally bring them into Midwestern or eastern flyway routes.

To make this short story a bit longer, it would be nice to explain a few of the visual points that identify this gander as the snow variety. Take a look at this more detailed shot (here) and you’ll see it has a “sneer” on its pinkish bill. The guides will often refer to this beak feature as a grinning patch, but it is more like a Clint Eastwood sneer if you ask me. Part of this expression is due to the increased number of ridges on the bill edge that act to cut the tough grasses eaten by these birds. Another “Snow” feature is the small size – they are about 65% the size of a typical Canada (as you can see in the first picture).  As a snow goose, you might wonder why this guy isn’t white. The answer to this question is a bit more complicated.

Snow Geese come in two basic colors – the white and the so-called “blue” varieties.  It wasn’t until the early 1960’s when it was discovered that the blue and white birds were actually the same species that could interbreed at will. The white birds are snow white with black wing tips, while the  darker types are white faced with dark gray bodies and wing feathers.  The blue color is dominant, but a majority of the eastern birds are dark and the western birds are white. This errant bird is a young blue phase Snow Goose which is just coming into it’s own adult colors. It will eventually gain the fully white face and bright pink beak and legs as it enters it’s first breeding season.

When this bird flew away with his new-found flockmates (see here) it voiced another distinctive trait.  It’s honk was distinctly more nasal – almost tin-like – when heard among the mix of big honking Canadians. It could still be clearly heard as the gang flew out of sight over the tree line.

Now, the other bird in the flock (see below) was one of a totally different feather. This individual, looking almost like a Canada Goose attempting to dress up as a blue phase Snow Goose, seems to be a hybrid. Exactly who be da mamma and who da fadder isn’t clear on this bird except that one of his parents was definitely a Canadian, eh. The other parent was probably a Greylag (domestic farm) goose or a White-fronted Goose. Canada Geese can make whoopie with many other kinds of geese, and known hybrids involving these two other species run the gamut of shades. I could argue for either bird, but I don’t think it really matters in this case. Without a blood test, it can only be guesswork regarding the paternity of this fowl. All that can be said is that it is an interesting hybrid.

It was unusual, to say the least, to find two special birds in a small flock of regulars such as this. The odds are against it. One of the funny things about this goose gathering is that it also contained a regular Canada Goose with a bad limp. Like a gang of movie extras – the accidental arctic kid, the hy-bird, and the Festus bird- are like misfits banished to the flock of misfit geese (migrants from an island just to westward of the Island of Misfit Toys). I’m guessing that one of them also whistles instead of honks or that another wants to be a duck. At the very least, this assemblage casts some doubt on the “birds of a feather flock together” moniker.

1 Comment »

  1. Mom Blogs – Blogs for Moms…

    Trackback by Anonymous — February 18, 2009 @ 9:11 pm

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