When I arrived at AHP I was happily surprised to see a white dusting of snow on the ground; this gave the park a wintry feel that I am not accustomed to, as I usually stop visiting once the water freezes over, which usually occurs before the snow arrives. Although this isn’t the first time it has snowed this month, it is the first time the snow has lingered long enough to cover the still-green lawns of Ottawa. This December has been quite mild, with most days above zero, and both the ponds and the river were completely ice-free. A lot of waterfowl and gulls are still present, making a trip to the river worthwhile.
I didn’t see any clusters of birders or photographers in the park – the sure sign of a rare or unusual bird in the area – so I decided to check out the ponds first. A quick scan did not produce the Greater White-fronted Goose, and when I saw Chris Lewis walking up from the river I hurried over to talk to her instead. She told me that the goose was on the river, quite close to the shore. I couldn’t believe my luck when I began scanning and, before I could ask, “which part of the flock is it in?” found it right in front of me. I snapped some shots, none of which are worth posting as the sky was quite overcast at the time, though I was thrilled to have finally gotten some pictures of my nemesis bird! Chris and I talked for a few minutes, during which time the goose swam off into the huge raft of Canada Geese in the western bay. We couldn’t relocate it before Chris had to leave, but fortunately another birder had picked it up against the far shore. This is what it usually looks like trying to scan flocks of Canada Geese for a single individual (click to enlarge):
The same birder told me that there was a Snow Goose and some Cackling Geese on the western pond, so when it became clear the Greater White-fronted Goose wasn’t coming back to shore, I headed over there to see if I could spot either species. The Snow Goose, a white morph, was easy to spot. This was the first time I had ever been so close to one, and with the zoom on my camera I was able to get some fantastic shots of it even though it was in the middle of the pond.
Here you can see the black “grinning patch” on the otherwise orange bill.
The grinning patch is an effect created by the black upper and lower mandibles which are lined with serrated points called tomia. The presence of a black grinning patch is useful in distinguishing smaller Snow Geese from Ross’s Geese, which have orange mandibles that are the same colour as the rest of the bill. A rule of thumb for identifying Snow Geese from a distance is to see whether it has any black in the center of the bill. If it doesn’t, it is not a Snow Goose.
While watching the Snow Goose, I noticed just as I clicked the shutter on one shot that a small, short-necked, short-billed goose had swam right in front of it. I took a look through my binoculars, found the bird, and was happy to see a Cackling Goose!
It was swimming by itself toward the back of the pond, so for several minutes I was presented with a view of its backside. When it turned its head I could see that the white cheek patch was narrower than I had expected; usually they seem large to me, perhaps a result of the small head. Then it turned sideways, and when it swam close to a couple of Canada Geese the size difference, including the proportionately smaller bill, was immediately apparent.
Eventually I located another small goose with a wider cheek patch. It doesn’t seem to have the vertical forehead of a classic Richardson’s Cackling Goose, and although its bill seems small, it doesn’t appear as dainty as ones I’ve seen previously.
A few gulls were still present in the park, including 14 Ring-billed Gulls and one juvenile Herring Gull. The Ring-billed Gulls usually leave Ottawa in December, flying south to the St. Lawrence when the ponds and rivers start freezing up. It seemed a bit strange to see them on the snowy lawn.
The Herring Gull appeared to be the same one that I saw here last week; compared to the Ring-billed Gulls it appears massive, with a massive bill.
As I circled the pond I noticed the Snow Goose swimming toward the shore with a group of Canada Geese. I was hoping it would follow the Canada Geese heading over to the lawn to feed, so I slowly walked up to where the geese were leaving the water. It had other ideas, however, stopping near the shore instead where it stayed a while.
After spending about half an hour watching and photographing the birds on the pond I decided to see if the Greater White-fronted Goose was any closer to the shore. I ran into Aaron Hywarren who was also looking for the goose, and told him where I had last seen it. When we reached the river, however, we were delighted to find that the goose had returned to the shore at Andrew Haydon Park and was swimming almost right in front of us!
The sun had come out, too, so the light was much better for photography. There is nothing quite like the euphoria of not only seeing a nemesis bird up close, but having the perfect light for getting some great photos of it too!
The Greater White-fronted Goose has a circumpolar distribution, breeding in tundra wetlands across Alaska and the Canadian territories as well as in Russia and Greenland. A similar but smaller white-fronted goose inhabits northern Asia and Europe and is known as the Lesser White-fronted Goose. Although the Greater White-fronted Goose has one of the largest ranges of any species of goose in the world, in North America large flocks are common only west of the Mississippi River where they migrate through the Great Plains. Usually only small flocks and individual stragglers are found in the eastern half of the continent, which is why it is a difficult goose to find in our area.
Unlike some other goose species, family bonds among Greater White-fronted Geese remain strong through their lives. Mates stay together many years and migrate south together with their offspring. Some offspring may stay with their parents through the next breeding season, and in many cases these family associations continue throughout their lives. Knowing this now, it makes me wonder what had happened to the parents of the juvenile Greater White-fronted Goose out near Lafleche. Were the parents among the huge flock of Snow Geese moving around the farm fields around Lafleche and Ste-Rose earlier this fall? Or had the juvenile become separated from them even earlier, leaving it to fend for itself until it found the huge flock of Snow Geese?
The Greater White-fronted Goose truly is a handsome bird, its muted colours quite unlike the other geese that pass through our area. Aaron and I were both happy to watch the goose swimming along so close to the shore. I’ve waited a long time for an experience like this; after today, I can no longer consider this bird my nemesis.
Aaron hadn’t seen the Cackling Geese on the pond, so on our way out of the park we stopped to scan the western pond for the small geese I had seen earlier. We found one near the back of the flock; this made it a four-goose day for both of us, a feat that I have never been able to accomplish before.
Before heading home I decided to check the eastern pond one last time. The pond was carpeted in Canada Geese; I was unable to find any other species. Still, I enjoy seeing the large numbers of Canada Geese sticking around so late into the month, for as long as they are still here, I can ignore the fact that the solstice occurs in just three days, heralding the beginning of winter.