Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

December 9, 2009

The Season’s First Snow

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:36 pm

It’s the second week of December and here in S.E. Michigan we are still looking for the season’s first real snow. Some look forward to it while others look sadly for it, but look we do.  There have been a few flakes flying about, but no real accumulation has occurred as of yesterday morning . Well, I am happy to report that the first “real snow” has finally arrived. It came in on the cusp of a cold Canadian wind in the form of a real Snow Goose.

Truthfully, this northern visitor actually showed up last week, but I didn’t see it until yesterday. A friend advised me that there was a lone Snow Goose hanging out with a huge flock of Canada Geese at the Washago Pond complex in Willow Metropark. I went out to find it and was rewarded after a short search.  I believe that half of the world’s population of Canada Geese have taken up residence on the lawn and in the slushy water of the complex. There were thousands of the feathered nuisances walking, honking, flying, and pooping their way across the landscape.  Spotting the solitary figure of a white bird among that sea of gray was more like spotting a grain of sand in a pile of pepper, rather than a beacon in a coal pile. O.K., it wasn’t that hard, but it took a while. I almost broke a sweat.

There is a good chance that this will not only be the seasons first snow but perhaps its only snow. Snow Geese are rare migrant visitors to these parts. A majority of these Arctic nesting birds descend down through the central plains to overwinter along the Gulf Coast and Mexico.  Their southbound routes typically take them well west of Michigan, with some populations veering to the east, but all in all they tend to avoid our middle Great Lakes country altogether. This is simply a fact and not a reflection on the efforts of our state tourist board, by the way. A few always manage to find their way here, however.

In nearly all cases when these birds show up in our region they are in the company of Canada Geese. Equally nearly (not good English, but so what) they tend to look a bit uncomfortable – like Dorothy realizing she is not in Kansas anymore. Perhaps part of this befuddled look is that “Fistful of Dollars” sneer that the species exhibits. One of the best ways to tell this bird apart from the similar Ross’s Goose is to look for the presence of an oval shaped area on the side of the beak where the heavy tooth-like laminations show.  Bird guides call this a “grinning patch” or a “smile,”  but I call it an “Eastwood do you feel lucky Sneer.” Snow Geese are grazers and they use these “teeth,” in combination with a stout tongue, to pull and cut tough grasses and herbs.

Another sure way to identify these birds is to look for a white goose with black wing tips (see below). There are other color variations, including the so-called Blue Goose form,  but the normally-colored ones are distinctively black & white.  O.K.,  I probably shouldn’t have said “normal” as if to imply that the blue ones are “freakish,” so I hope the S.A.B.G (“Society for the Advancement of Blue Geese”) doesn’t call me on this one.

Even though mine was a rarish sighting, Snow Geese are actually one of the most common birds on the planet. It is estimated that there are over 5 million birds on the Canadian breeding grounds alone and that the population is growing at an accelerated rate. Some near- sighted folks have actually pointed toward global warming as the cause of this boom. I’m not sure how that works, but no matter.

Perhaps agitated by globally warmed nerves, my Snow Goose proved to be an elusive beast. No sooner had I spotted it – and it me, than it launched skyward in the company of a few skiddish Canadians (one of which had a leg band – you can see it on the left leg of the center individual in the this  picture). They all took off over the tree line and headed toward Kansas.

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