Snow Goose Spectacle

On October 30, 2015, a very rare Pink-footed Goose was discovered east of Casselman on Lafleche Road near the dump – the same landfill where a Gyrfalcon had spent the previous winter, feeding on the starlings and gulls attracted to the garbage. The Pink-footed Goose breeds in Greenland and Iceland, and normally winters in western Europe. Sometimes individuals wander over to North America, where they are usually found along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. It has never been seen in Ontario before – until now.

This mega-rarity has been traveling with a massive flock of Snow Geese which has been feeding in the fields around Lafleche for weeks; estimates range from 80,000 to 150,000 of these pristine black and white geese. Lucky observers have been able to pick out Canada, Cackling, Ross’s and Greater White-fronted Geese among the huge flock, making for a total of six species in one field (our seventh species, the Brant, is most often seen along the Ottawa River, and I’ve never heard of any foraging in fields the way our other goose species do).

When it was first discovered two weekends ago, I debated whether to try to see this bird; I went to see the Cattle Egret instead, reasoning that one white bird in a green field would be easier to spot than one grayish-brown goose in a sea of white, gray and “blue” geese. Also, the Cattle Egret was much closer to home and I didn’t want to make the long drive out past Casselman alone. So when Deb said she was available for birding this weekend, it seemed like a good idea to go. Even if we missed the Pink-footed Goose, the spectacle of tens of thousands of Snow Geese and the chance of seeing Ross’s and Greater White-fronted Geese would be worth it.

Snow Geese in front of Lafleche Dump

Snow Geese in front of Lafleche Dump

Deb and I began our scan from Highway 138. About half of the flock was feeding on the grass in front of us, while another large group was much further back and closer to the Queensway. We scanned the closer flock from the road, though the wind blowing across the open field and the high-speed traffic passing close behind us made conditions less than ideal. It didn’t take long to decide to look for a closer vantage and, seeing some birders with a spotting scope on Lafleche Road, we decided to get away from the traffic and watch the birds from there.

We found Jon Ruddy with a few other birders, although he hadn’t managed to pick out the Pink-footed Goose by the time we had reached them. However, they did find a Lesser Black-backed Gull among a large flock of gulls, and both Deb and I were able to view it through the scope. Once again I realized I my own scope could use an upgrade – something with the capabilities of say, the Hubble Telescope. I was also able to pick out a Great Black-backed Gull in the flock, but was not able to confidently identify any of the “gray-backed” gulls due to the distance.

Since this new vantage point put us even further away from the geese, we decided to return to our initial spot and scope the birds again from the highway. We had no better luck in finding the Pink-footed Goose, though a juvenile Greater White-fronted Goose was a great consolation prize. I spotted a grayish-brown bird in with the flock and realized it wasn’t a juvenile Snow Goose – it was darker than the juvenile Snow Geese, and slightly smaller with no pale fringing on the wing feathers. Both the bill and the legs were orangish-yellow – not dark. My suspicions were confirmed when an adult Snow Geese snapped at it at least twice, chasing it off. Jon got a look at it before it disappeared into the crowd, and it was he who identified it for us. I had never really thought to study up on the juvenal plumage of the Greater White-fronted Goose, as all of the ones reported in our area tend to be adults. Deb was especially happy as it was a lifer for her.

Snow Geese in flight

Snow Geese in flight

Deb and I tried searching for the Pink-footed Goose from one more vantage point closer to the Queensway, again without any luck. A few other birders were looking there as well, but not one of the birders we talked to had seen the Pink-footed Goose that morning. By that time the birds were getting restless, taking off and landing further away, then taking off and landing closer, which made a prolonged study difficult. We ended up leaving after about an hour and a half; not only were the birds uncooperative, but the constant wind blowing across the open fields was terrible. Still, the long drive out to Lafleche was worth it, just for the spectacle alone. Estimates ranged from 70,000 to 90,000 Snow Goose in the fields at the junction of the two highways, with another huge flock somewhere north of the Queensway. I was thrilled that we managed to pick out the juvenile Greater White-fronted Goose, too, as it is only the second one I have ever seen. A lone Canada Goose flying over was the third species we saw that day, making it a three-goose day for us and one we won’t soon forget.

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