November is goose season here in Ottawa. While flocks of local Canada Geese start gathering together in late September, geese from much further north begin arriving throughout October, once the lakes and rivers on their breeding grounds in the territories and along Hudson’s Bay freeze over, until their numbers peak in November. Ottawa is an important staging area for many different waterfowl species, as the Ottawa River and numerous small lakes and ponds in the area often remain open well into December; the geese rest on these bodies of water during the night, then go feed in the numerous agricultural fields just outside the city during the day. This is the time to look for Snow Geese and the diminutive Cackling Geese among them; if you are lucky you will find a Greater White-fronted Goose hiding within the flock – or something much rarer.
I’m lucky to live in the southern part of Kanata where the river, the Moodie Drive quarry ponds, the Richmond lagoons, and all the agricultural fields in between are each only about a 15-minute drive away. I’m also lucky to have the Eagleson storm water ponds only a short walk away, as thousands of geese stop in here every migration. I usually visit the ponds a few times a week since I’m still working from home, but a visit on November 3rd was prompted by a message from my friend Sophie that a White-rumped Sandpiper was foraging along the bank close to Emerald Meadows Drive. Although I’d already surpassed my goal of reaching 200 bird species in Ottawa this year, I still needed this one for my year list and headed out to see it. After carefully making my way down the slope to the water’s edge I managed to see, and photograph, the sandpiper. The long wings and short bill distinguish it from the similar-looking Dunlin, which is slightly more common in Ottawa this time of year.
After watching the bird for a bit, I walked around the pond to see what else was around. There were at least 1,500 Canada Geese in the ponds that I could see, with more that I presumably couldn’t. Among them I found a Greater Yellowlegs, ten mallards, four Hooded Mergansers, and two Cackling Geese. Fortunately the Cackling Geese were classic Richardson’s Cackling Geese; these are the ones that leave no doubt as to their identity with their tiny heads and bills, squarish foreheads, and wide, white cheek patch with a slight indentation below the eye.
Cackling Geese have a “pin-headed” look that small Canada Geese lack. This is usually most noticeable when a goose is resting with its neck folded so that its head is close against its body; however, even when they stretch their necks out fully it is apparent that the head is rather small.
Cackling Geese are rather common at the ponds during the spring and fall migration; it just takes a lot of time and patience to find them among all the hundreds or thousands of Canada Geese! I usually manage to spot them a couple of times a year, with twice as many possible candidates that I either can’t get close enough to identify one way or the other, or lack one or more characteristics of a classic Richardson’s Cackling Goose.
The best bird of my visit was not a goose, however, but a warbler! I was checking a flock of chickadees in the trees near the fenced yards when a small yellowish bird with a dark cap landed on a branch out in the open. The sky was too dark at that moment to see any other distinguishing features, and when it flew toward the grove of trees I lost it. Sophie and I spent a good 15 minutes searching the grove but had no luck.
I returned the following day to see if the warbler was still around. I checked all the ponds this time, doubling the number of geese I saw to about 3,000, but found no warbler. Two Greater Yellowlegs and the White-rumped Sandpiper were still present, as were at least 200 mallards, 10 American Black Ducks, six Hooded Mergansers, and a couple of American Tree Sparrows. Then, while watching the geese fly in, I spotted a single white one among them: a Snow Goose!
It landed in the central pond close to where I was standing, and swam almost right up to me. The dingy tones are suggestive of a juvenile bird, as is the dusky orange of the bill. There have been a couple of Ross’s Geese in the west end seen sporadically lately, although some have suggested they may be Ross x Snow Goose hybrids. I spent some time watching this bird to make sure I hadn’t misidentified it, but the large, wedge-shaped head and large grin patch on the bill both point to Snow Goose. Snow Geese are more common in our region – especially east of the city where they pass through in the tens of thousands each migration – so it wasn’t a surprise to me that this was one, too. Still, it was nice to see up close as it was a species I was specifically looking for when trying to reach 200 species (it was bird no. 195 when I finally found a few in the fields along Eagleson Road in late September after missing them at Andrew Haydon Park and the Moodie Drive quarry).
Sophie found another great bird a few days later on November 7th – a Ross’s Goose in the tiny pond along Terry Fox Drive just behind the Walmart. This area – which used to be a field where I’d seen Northern Harriers hunting from time to time – is rapidly being developed into a new subdivision, and the developers had recently made this small pond accessible via a newly paved footpath. Sophie messaged me the directions, and I headed out into the warm, breezy afternoon to take a look. It was easy enough to spot among all the Canada Geese.
At first it was right in the middle of the pond, and swam to the opposite bank where it stood on the shore and preened for a few minutes. Then it swam directly toward me, coming only a few metres away! As a result, I got my best views – and best photos – of this rare visitor to date!
Compared to the Snow Goose, the Ross’s Goose is smaller bodied, with a proportionately smaller neck. The head is small and round, not large and wedge-shaped like a Snow Goose. As with Cackling Geese, the size and shape of the bill plays an important part in distinguishing these two species: the Ross’s Goose has a short, stubby bill that is usually grayish-blue at the base in mature birds and has a much smaller “grin patch”. In addition, the feathering at the base of the bill is more vertical.
This bird was a juvenile – its feathers were grayish in colour, with a pronounced dark streak on the back of the head and neck, and it had a noticeably dark eye-line. I watched as it preened and fluffed out its feathers for a minute before it turned and began swimming away from me.
The Ross’s Goose breeds along the Hudson’s Bay coastline, as well as the Canadian coastline of the Arctic Ocean where it nests in dry arctic tundra in areas abundant in sedges and grasses. Their migratory path takes them through the Canadian prairies and the center of the continent to their wintering grounds in California, New Mexico, and Texas. They generally do not migrate through the eastern half of the continent, although stray birds have occasionally ended up in Ontario. Ross’s Goose sightings in Ontario have become more and more frequent in the past 30 years, possibly due to the population explosion occurring as a result of warming in the Arctic. Both the Ross’s Goose and the Snow Goose populations have increased dramatically in recent years, to the point where the sheer number of birds are over-grazing their tundra habitat. This is affecting the breeding grounds of shorebirds, which rely on the presence of sedges for nesting sites.
I ran into Sophie and their mother as they were finished their walk along the path. We talked for a bit – during which time a juvenile White-crowned Sparrow emerged briefly from the weedy hill behind us – and they told me that there was a large flock of Common Redpolls in the overgrown field a short distance away. Much of the original field has been demolished and now has paved roads and various half-built houses on it, but I found a spot along the ravine where numerous small birds were flying back and forth between the bare trees and the waist-high vegetation below. I identified a few goldfinches and a large number of Common Redpolls, but if there were any Hoary Redpolls among them they didn’t make themselves known.
It’s been a fabulous finch winter so far, with Pine Siskins, Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Grosbeaks, Bohemian Waxwings, both redpoll species, and both crossbill species all moving through the region, although it remains to be seen whether any of them will actually stay through the winter. So far most reports of these birds have been of flocks flying over, or feeding on berries or seeds without staying in one area for very long. I’ve managed to cross paths with almost all of these birds this season – except the crossbills and the Hoary Redpoll – though I haven’t gotten any photos until now. It is great to see the grosbeaks in particular as it’s been a long time since I’ve seen them in Ottawa.
The following morning I headed over the Eagleson storm water ponds to see if by any chance the Ross’s Goose had made its way there. To my delight, I found it almost immediately in the central pond. It didn’t swim as close to me as it had the day before, but it did come close enough for me to verify that it was the same juvenile with the same gray patch along the top and the back of its head.
It swam among the Canada Geese, giving a good indication of the size difference between these species. Notice how even the distant Canada Goose in the background is much longer in body than the Ross’s Goose.
The Ross’s Goose didn’t stay long; eventually it flew off with three or four other geese, heading south toward the agricultural fields. I walked around the ponds again, looking for other birds, and found a Cackling Goose among all the Canadas, making it a three-species goose day at the ponds. I also found three Greater Yellowlegs, both Hooded and Common Mergansers, a juvenile Great Blue Heron, and a large flock of Common Redpolls – perhaps the same flock I had seen on the other side of Terry Fox the day before. They landed briefly in the trees near the butterfly meadow before the flock dispersed and broke up into smaller groups.
The Ross’s Goose brings the total number of species I have seen at the Eagleson ponds to 150 out of the 170 that have been reported there. I’m still waiting to see a Greater White-fronted Goose there – with any luck that will show up next!