Thursday 5 November 2015

A wild goose chase

I was on my way to Point Pelee on Friday evening with plans to spend the weekend in one of my favorite birding locations, a place I hadn't been to in a number of weeks. That all changed, however, when news of the Pink-footed Goose near Casselman broke! Fortunately I received the email as I was approaching Woodstock - much better than the alternative of hearing about the bird as I rolled into Point Pelee. I guess my delayed start to the weekend was good for something.

I drove to my parents' place in Cambridge to spend the night (or rather, the first few hours of the night) and made plans with several others to attempt to chase the bird. The bird in question was consorting with a large group of Snow Geese, and the more eyes searching, the better. It was a weekend too conveniently, so dozens of birders would be on site to help find the bird.

Ken Burrell, Barb Charlton and I met along the highway at the dark-and-early time of 4:00 AM, making good time through Toronto and passing Kingston as the sun began to rise. At 7:57 the first Ontbirds post from Bruce DiLabio contained good news - the bird was back, in the same field where it had been seen and photographed by Jacques Bouvier the previous day. Excellent! We were only 50 minutes away and it was shaping up to be an easy twitch, with the bird teed up in someone's scope as we arrived.

Except that wasn't the case - the bird flew east with a group of Snow Geese about 10 minutes before we arrived. Very frustrating, especially as many of the birders on site were discussing how fantastic the looks were of the bird, describing it in detail. Ugh!

Eventually big flocks of Snow Geese began filtering back towards the field, a big sod farm providing great feeding habitat for the thousands of geese. Some birders who had already seen the bird hopped in their vehicles to scout out the surrounding fields for the bird, while the rest of us remained glued to our scopes, scanning the birds. Undoubtedly the bird eventually returned with one of the big flocks of Snow Geese, but it was nearly impossible to scan them all before they dropped into the while mass of birds already present. While most of the Snow Geese here were white morph, about 5% of them were "blue" morph, including some juveniles which can somewhat resemble a Pink-footed Goose if the views are distant or if one is unfamiliar with the intricacies of their plumage.

Shortly after 11:00, Mark Gawn relocated the Pink-footed Goose in the same location it had been seen earlier in the morning. Ken, Barb and I raced over to where Mark's scope was trained on the bird immediately, but as we were pulling in to the spot, something caused the big flock of geese to get up and "shuffle the deck". By the time they had landed, there was no easily visible Pink-footed Goose hidden amongst all the Snow Geese. Missed it by seconds!

A similar situation happened an hour or so later, as Jeff Skevington found the bird from a different vantage point. Again, by the time we raced over to the spot, the geese had flown around, and the needle was lost again in the haystack.

The rest of the day was spent with Barb Charlton, Ken Burrell and Mike Burrell. Skeins of geese, some containing several thousand birds, kept flying in from all directions, effectively increasing the size of the haystack that contained the needle! All afternoon the bird hadn't been seen, but still several dozen birders were on site, carefully scanning through each and every bird.

At one point I picked out this strange looking goose, which was quickly determined to be a young Greater White-fronted Goose, a new plumage for some of us. A nice bird, but not THE bird!

Even without the Pink-footed Goose making an appearance, the spectacle of all the Snow Geese nearly made up for it. I wish I had taken some photos of the birds, as it was insane. When all the geese would take off and fly around a bit before landing again, it almost sounded like an apocalypse was coming. 100,000+ geese will do that.

Finally, close to 4:00 PM as the threat of darkness and a failed twitch started to creep into our minds, Barb spotted a very distant bird that was likely the Pink-footed Goose. But it disappeared behind a wall of geese soon after, completely obscuring it. Ken and Mike decided to go up the road to find a different vantage point, while Barb and I kept scanning for the bird. Two minutes later my phone rang - it was Ken and they were on the bird!! We raced over to the spot as Ken and Mike, along with Lev Frid and Amanda Guercio, stood atop some compost piles, glued to their scopes. Barb and I ran up the piles, and after 7 hours of scanning, finally definitely laid eyes on the bird. It was near the back of the field, perhaps 1.5 km away, but luckily haze wasn't a problem and we all enjoyed relatively unobscured views of the bird. The views were short, as not 5 minutes later the geese all got up and flew around again before landing. At this point we didn't really feel like scanning the birds once more, as 100,000 geese is a lot to look through, and we still had a long drive ahead of us.

Here is a photo of the happy crew, not long after viewing the Pink-footed Goose.

From left to right: Barb Charlton, Ken Burrell, Lev Frid, Amanda Guercio, Mike Burrell

What a great bird, and thanks to Jacques Bouvier who discovered it, many birders have been able to view it in subsequent days. Of course it hasn't been easy and many birders have left without seeing the bird, but the warm weather may entice it and its Snow Geese companions to stick around for another few weeks.

The Pink-footed Goose is the third species found in Ontario this year that will be new to the official checklist, provided that it is accepted by the OBRC. The other two were Little Egret and Eurasian Dotterel. What will be next?


Tyler said...

Graylag Goose east of where Pinkie is.

Steve said...

I enjoyed reading your story, Josh. I'm glad it had a happy you know, they sometimes don't. My story of seeing this bird is much shorter but I just as excited. Almost made up for missing the little egret.......both times......almost. I know it's not new but I'm expecting to hear about a common ground-dove in the province any day.

Josh Vandermeulen said...


Josh Vandermeulen said...

Thanks Steve, and glad you got to see it as well. It took me two tries for the Little Egret as well, but luckily the second time the bird was present.

Will be keeping an eye out for Common Ground-Dove down at Pelee this weekend!

Tyler said...

What will be next was the question. Greylag was the answer.