A Barnacle Goose showed up in Ottawa earlier this year, although at first I didn’t pay much attention to the reports. It was observed along the Rideau River between Hurdman and Billings Bridge on May 28th and 29th, and if I had been working downtown at the time – only a short train ride from Hurdman – I might have gone to chase it, despite the concerns about the bird’s lineage. The thought at the time was that it might have had some Canada Goose ancestry, and Billings Bridge was too far out of my way to chase a bird that might or might be countable on a work day. The bird disappeared for a while, then showed up again in the west end on June 23rd – this time at Nortel Marsh – before spending the first week of July at Wesley Clover Parks just off of Corkstown Road.
Then, on August 1st, it showed up at the Kanata Recreation Complex near the corner of Terry Fox and Hazeldean Road. That was much closer to home, so the following day I headed out there at lunch to see if I could spot it. There are a few ball fields that the Canada Geese and Ring-billed Gulls like to hang out on, and my plan was to scan the flocks of Canada Geese in the hopes of finding a smaller, darker goose with a white face among them.
It was raining steadily when I left, but when I arrived at the KRC parking lot the rain had turned into a downpour. Plan B was to park as close to the fields as possible and scan the geese from my car, hoping that the rain would let up by the time I found it – assuming it was still there to be found. This wouldn’t be the first Barnacle Goose I’ve seen, though it would be the first one I could count on my life list; back in 2013 while my mother and I were in the Point Pelee area we stopped in at the Jack Miner Bird Sanctuary where one was kept in captivity.
There were some geese grazing on the field, but I did not see any smaller geese among them. The rain showed no signs of letting up, so I decided to wait another 15 minutes and then grab my umbrella and go for a walk. Not five minutes later I looked up to see a flock of about ten Canada Geese right strolling down Terry Fox Drive near the entrance to the park. They crossed the road, heading south toward Hazeldean, and I did a double take when I saw the Barnacle Goose among them! I drove forward to get as close as possible to the entrance, then got out with my umbrella and camera.
A soon as the geese finished crossing the road they began grazing on the grass right next to the sidewalk. I edged closer with my umbrella and camera, and was thrilled when I was able to get close enough for some better-than-record shots.
Barnacle Geese breed in the European Arctic (including Greenland), but sometimes end up in eastern North America as vagrants during the winter or in migration. However, because they are often kept in captivity, determining the origins of any goose can be difficult. Indeed, the Ontario Bird Records Committee has traditionally assumed all Barnacle Geese observed in the province to be escaped birds unless they could be proven as wild; before 2015, the only accepted record was that of a bird shot in the United Counties of Prescott and Russell in 2005, as that bird was wearing a leg band showing it had been banded in Islay, Scotland in 2004 – a place where Barnacle Geese from Greenland are known to overwinter.
This was an immature bird, and some of the plumage details pointing to distant Canada Goose ancestry included too much white in the face, black lores that were much narrower than those seen in pure European Barnacle Geese, a long bill, and buffy flanks rather than white. In addition, the fact that it has been here since May instead of moving on also points to a bird that may not be of wild origins. Of the three previous summer records in Ontario, all have been one-day wonders. Historically, only a few birds arriving in autumn and winter have stayed for more than a week. Be that as it may, I thought it was a very handsome goose, and planned on counting it for my year list even if the OBRC determined that it was not in fact countable.
This was bird no. 172 on my Ottawa year list, and I was not sure whether I would go see it again. It disappeared again for another two months after its five-day visit with the KRC Canada Geese, and then was reported at Andrew Haydon Park on October 10th. I was at Shirley’s Bay when the RBA came in, and decided to drive over to see it again. The Barnacle Goose was swimming on the river in the western bay fairly close to shore, but when I tried to take some photos my camera battery was dead! It showed no signs of restlessness, so I decided to return home and get my spare battery, charging it in the car on the way back. Fortunately the goose was still there when I returned, and the second battery was working.
Given the facial pattern – especially the thin black lores – it is believed to be the same goose seen over the summer, now in full breeding plumage. The black cap was now solid, and the wings showed a beautiful black and gray barring that contrasted handsomely with the gray and white belly. Like other geese, males and females look alike, so it is not possible to determine the bird’s sex.
Although I rarely chase rarities (especially if they are more than a 15-minute drive), I’m glad I chased this one. There are very few opportunities for me to get life birds in Ottawa any more, and this one brought my life list up to 541 species worldwide. It was a beautiful bird well worth seeing in the wild, and I am fortunate that it stuck around long enough for me to see it twice!