It was deep into the afternoon when I arrived, and I headed to the western half of the park first in order to scan the mudflats for shorebirds and the river for waterfowl. I didn’t bring my scope, as I didn’t feel up to carrying it, so my scan didn’t take long. With my binoculars, the only shorebird I was able to discern on the mudflats was a single Greater Yellowlegs, and the only waterfowl I saw on the river were a few mallards dabbling in the muck along the shore and a couple hundred Canada Geese further out. There wasn’t a single diving bird in sight that made me even want to reconsider getting my scope from the car.
I then returned to the ponds to study the geese. The juvenile Great Blue Heron was in its usual spot at the west end of the park, though it didn’t look too happy. Although it was about 6°C and the sun was shining intermittently from a cloud-studded sky, a brisk wind was blowing, and it felt colder than it actually was. Great Blue Herons are actually very tolerant of the cold, with many individuals lingering in eastern Ontario until December. They return in March, before the ice has completely left the ponds and rivers along which they forage.
I added only one other species of waterfowl to the day’s list when I saw a single Lesser Scaup diving in the middle of the pond. This was a year bird for me, though, so I was happy to see it. After several minutes of scanning the geese, I spotted a much smaller goose swimming in a small patch of open water. I grew excited when I tallied up all the field marks of a classic Richardson’s Cackling Goose (Branta canadensis hutchinsii), the expected subspecies of Cackling Goose in eastern Ontario.
As it passed a Canada Goose, its small size immediately became apparent. Cackling Geese also appear somewhat paler than the larger Canada Geese, with their upper-parts appearing a frosty gray-brown instead of a rich dark brown. The white patch on the cheek usually appears quite large, with an indentation below the eye that is not usually seen on Canada Geese. The most important field mark to watch for, however, is the small, dainty bill. Because the Cackling Goose has a knobby, square forehead rising vertically from the bill, it has a very different profile than the Canada Goose, which has a more streamlined sloping forehead.
It is easy enough to identify a Cackling Goose when it is swimming with the much larger “giant” Canada Geese, but then I noticed it was sticking pretty close to another small goose. Although small, it didn’t have the wide, indented cheek patch, and its bill was not quite as dainty as the Cackling Goose’s bill. And although its forehead appeared square rather than wedge-shaped, it lacked the knobby appearance of a classic Richardson’s Cackling Goose. The neck did not appear quite as small, either, though this is may simply be because the bird was not as fully relaxed as the Cackling Goose (geese often retract their necks when they are at ease, and extend them when on alert).
I forwarded my photos to Jon Ruddy, and after some discussion, we weren’t sure that it was possible to safely classify this goose.
This excellent article by Team eBird Michigan discusses the status and identification of Cackling Geese in that state. Along with posting eBird checklists showing pictures of both typical Cackling Geese and two intermediate-type birds not easily classified as any specific subspecies, it provides specific criteria for identifying Cackling Geese in Michigan (though the criteria are also useful here in Ontario, too). I thought the criteria were helpful enough to reproduce in part here:
- Very small body size, about the size of a Mallard.
- Knobby, squared forehead rising vertically from the bill.
- Very small bill that is quite dainty in appearance.
- Frostier upper-parts compared to Canada Geese; the mantle, scapulars, and upperwing secondary coverts often appear grayish-brown rather than chocolate brown.
- Indented white cheek patch (not diagnostic, but a useful supporting feature).
The Cackling Goose brought my year list for the Ottawa circle up to 199 species. (It also brought my Ontario year list up to 209 species and my total year list – Canada only, this year – up to 219 species.) With several expected species still to pass through, there are quite a few possibilities for my 200th species including Red-breasted Merganser, Red-throated Loon, Black and White-winged Scoters, Long-tailed Duck, American Pipit, Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Shrike, and Iceland Gull. With waterfowl migration yet to begin in earnest, I’ll be spending more time along the river over the next month, and hope to find my 200th species there.
Despite some lingering discomfort from my gallbladder surgery, I enjoyed my 70 minutes at the park, even if I wasn’t able to walk as fast or as far as I wanted to. I gained a new appreciation for those benches, though I was mostly just happy to be outdoors watching some birds other than the ones in my yard. In a place as bustling with birds as Andrew Haydon Park, it was not a hardship at all to just sit back and watch them awhile.