Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Wild goose chases don’t have to be
March 03, 2007
Steve Grinley

     Have you ever been on a wild goose chase? It is a funny term.

     It usually means that you go searching for something that just isn’t there. In early February, Margo and I, along with our friend Naeem, actually went to Rhode Island to “chase” wild geese, hoping they would be there.

     Reports of two pink-footed geese, a barnacle goose, and a greater white-fronted goose were being reported from the Newport area on the Internet. The pink-footed goose would be a life bird for Margo and me, though Naeem had gone down the week before and saw those two birds. The barnacle goose would be new for Margo and Naeem, and the greater white-fronted goose would be a lifer for Naeem.

     Of course, when you “chase” wild geese, there is always the question of whether or not they are really wild. The origin of unusual ducks and geese needs to be scrutinized since so many of these types of birds are kept in captivity. The chances of an escaped bird is often very real. So searching for these rarities is half the battle. Then it needs to be discerned whether or not these species are, indeed, wild and countable. This is usually left up to the Avian Records Committee of each particular state.

     These geese that we sought were seen by many birders and the birds were traveling freely with large flocks of migrating Canada geese. It is likely that these birds will be determined to be wild. But, first, we had to find them.

     We headed directly to St. Mary’s Pond near Portsmouth where the greater white-fronted goose had been reported. The pond was some distance from the road and the morning light was against us, but we searched a large flock of Canada geese in the open water and on edge of the ice with our scopes.

     After a few minutes, some of the geese began to take flight, and we started to worry. I spotted the greater white-fronted goose. Its slightly smaller size and the white edge around the face was clearly visible. Margo and Naeem looked through my scope and saw the bird. Naeem found it in his scope and spent some time with this new bird for him, at least until it took flight with the majority of the geese that soon left.

     We had passed a reservoir along Route 114 shortly before turning for St. Mary’s Pond. We decided to head back there. It was the Lawton Valley Reservoir and, as we arrived, some of the Canada geese were also starting to leave. I caught site of the bright white face of a barnacle goose at the far end of the reservoir, but it, too, took off within a few minutes after Margo and Naeem had brief and distant looks at it.

     We then drove through Newport to near the country club and Fort Adams area where Naeem had seen the pink-footed geese the week before. We encountered other birders who were also searching for the geese, including a group with Bill Drummond of Andover.

     There was a cackling goose, which looks like a miniature Canada goose about the size of a mallard, in with the Canada geese at a farm just after the road to Fort Adams. But there was no sign of the pink-footed geese. We searched the entire peninsula area for hours without success. We began to think that this really was just a “wild goose chase!”

     After lunch time, we decided to take a break and headed to Coventry to look for tundra swans which had been reported there. We asked Bill to call us if anyone rediscovered the pink-footed geese in our absence. We turned up empty on the swans as well, only finding four mute swans in the mostly frozen ponds of Coventry.

     On our way back to Newport, we received a call from Bill that they located the birds. When we got back to Newport, we had great looks, from the road, at two pink-footed geese on the Country Club grounds. We had great, relatively close views in the late afternoon sun. Great views of a life bird. On our way back, we stopped at the reservoir again, and then searched area fields, hoping for another look at the barnacle goose.

     The sun was going down, but we made one more stop at the reservoir at 5:10 p.m., and the barnacle goose flew in at 5:17. We had good looks, though we lost light quickly. All in all, our “chase” was quite successful! Since then, I’ve found two snow geese among the hundreds of Canada geese in Newburyport.

     And, as if we hadn’t had enough of geese, Margo and I went down to Fairhaven, near New Bedford, a week ago to look for another greater white-fronted goose. We found a flock of Canadas in a field where the goose had been reported and we set up our scopes and scanned the flock. Once again I found the odd goose in the flock and Margo got a quick look at it just before the entire flock took to the air. We thought that there may have been a predator that spooked the birds, but we saw neither hawks nor coyotes in the area. Still, we were pleased with our good timing on yet another wild goose chase.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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