Friday, 16 March 2018

A Barnacle Goose in my (former) local patch

Since returning from Guyana in mid February I have not been doing much birding. The cold, windy and often snowy weather has persisted into mid-March, allowing me to take the time to try and complete some projects I have on the go such as finishing the Borneo blog posts, OBRC voting, Guyana/Tobago photo editing and a few other things. The last week or so especially I have spent many hours on iNaturalist, which as far as I am concerned is the best thing to happen since eBird! Birds have been far from my mind lately as I have been fully immersed in trying to figure out my reptile and amphibian life lists, working on identifications of Bolitoglossa salamanders and Pristimantis frogs, and slowly but surely imputing my herp records onto iNaturalist. It has been a lot of fun and I think I am up to 8 or 10 herp species that are first records for iNaturalist. It is a lot more enjoyable reminiscing about tropical trips and figuring out difficult frog IDs, then it is braving the cold and wind during the cold-ish snap we have been experiencing!

But, sometimes birds too take center stage. A week or two ago I drove down to Point Pelee to twitch the Townsend's Solitaire that Kory Renaud found back in February. Of course, prior to my visit it had been seen for many days in a row, but it was a no-show during my attempt. A Northern Shrike (new Pelee bird!) was a nice consolation, but I did not bother making a blog post given the lack of solitaire. And I have managed to bird a little bit here and there; Laura and I spent an enjoyable afternoon last weekend checking out an Eastern Screech-Owl and a Great Horned Owl on a nest, while also doing some hiking at local conservation areas. I have also spent a bit of time with the Eurasian Wigeon that Marcie Jacklin found only about 20 minutes from where I live, though my photos were heavily cropped with poor lighting, and I couldn't convince myself to write a blog post about it. But after a few months without any Ontario content, the streak has been broken!

Barnacle Goose - Schomberg lagoons, York Region

Two days ago a birder by the name of Donald Gorham discovered a Barnacle Goose at the Schomberg lagoons and submitted his sighting (and photo) to eBird. In the past, most Barnacle Goose records in Ontario were treated with a heavy dose of skepticism. This was due to several factors, including the species' rarity in North America, the supposed frequency that Barnacle Geese are kept in captivity, and the fact that some of the Ontario records did not seem to fit the expected pattern for Barnacle Geese in North America.

In recent years however, Barnacle Geese have become much more common on the east coast of North America - presumably in direct correlation to the increase of the population breeding in eastern Greenland and wintering in Scotland/Ireland. It is thought that Barnacle Geese get caught up with migrant Canada Geese on the breeding/summering grounds and fly across the Atlantic with them. Dozens are now reported each autumn, winter and spring in the mid-Atlantic states and elsewhere on the east coast, along with the less frequent but still regular Pink-footed Goose. An interesting article by Mike Burrell ( suggests that a paradigm shift should occur in how we treat Barnacle Goose records in Ontario, since many of the records for the province fit the expected pattern for a bird wintering with Canada Geese on the mid-Atlantic. I would encourage anyone with interest in vagrant geese to read his enlightening article.

As I had some field work only an hour away from Schomberg yesterday, I made the drive up to look for the goose. An Ontbirds message came through not long before I arrived, stating that it had flown back to the lagoons and was now resting on the ice. Excellent.

Upon arrival the goose was very easy to notice as I scanned from inside my car, so I got out and set up my scope beside a few other birders including Luke Berg who had made the drive as well. For the next hour or so I studied the bird in the scope, while secretly hoping it would fly towards us and over our heads so we could all get flight shots. Several other birders arrived, and it was good to chat with Andrew Keaveney, Taylor Brown, Bonnie Kinder and Kevin Shackleton among others while we watched the goose.

Barnacle Goose - Schomberg lagoons, York Region

Ontario only has two accepted records of Barnacle Goose - one specimen banded in Scotland that was shot on 20 November 2005, and recently a pair that were present in Ottawa from 3-4 May 2015. The latter record was accepted after the Ontario Bird Records Committee was shown a draft of Mike's article. Presumably more of the records in future years will be considered "good" if they follow a logical pattern, and maybe some of the previous records will be re-reviewed. With regards to the Schomberg bird, most Ontario birders are of the opinion that it is likely wild. Of course we will likely never be sure, but it does seem to tick all the boxes: spurs intact and no bands on its legs, traveling with a large flock of migrant Canada Goose, appears wary, time of year, etc. Interestingly, a big storm over the northeast may have also had an impact, as waterfowl are known to travel large distances to circumvent a weather system. It seems plausible that birds wintering in the mid-Atlantic and traveling north would divert to the west around the storm, conveniently ending up in south-central Ontario. Who knows, but it is interesting to think about!

Barnacle Goose - Schomberg, York Region

It was pretty cool to see such a rare bird only a few minutes from where I used to live. I actually drove past my former house in Pottageville on the way to the lagoons. Prior to the Barnacle Goose, the best bird I had seen at the Schomberg lagoons was a Red Knot that I found on June 7, 2013. The Barnacle Goose easily trumps that!

Unless there is any evidence to the contrary, it appears that most people are satisfied calling this Barnacle Goose a wild bird, an assessment I 90% agree with, given the evidence. If accepted by the OBRC, it will be only the third accepted record for the province, and the first for York Region and Simcoe County. Good luck to anyone else who looks for this bird; it is still present at the time of this writing!

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