Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Wild Goose Chase: No Go

The Barnacle Goose, shown in my first edition Golden Guide.

Last month, when I was in New York City, in Brooklyn, visiting my daughter, two species popped up on the national bird rarity list, only 50 miles away, in New Jersey: Barnacle and Pink-footed Goose. Both  were birds I’d never before seen in the wild. If they had shown up 50 miles from Duluth, I’d have been in the car in a heartbeat. But driving in or out of New York City is not something I do easily. I am always tense by the time I reach my daughter’s place. I pull up in front of a fire hydrant, call up to her apartment, and her partner Michael parks the car for me. Then I try not to move it again until it’s time to head home.

The Barnacle Goose is a species I first read about when I got my first field guides in 1974, but I never got fixated on seeing one because both field guides emphasized that it was an Old World species. When one showed up occasionally, usually in winter along the East Coast, it was simply an accidental stray. Barnacle Geese are strikingly beautiful, with a white forehead and face contrasting with a black neck and bill, and are often raised in captivity, so at least some North American records are probably of birds that escaped game farms or aviculturists.

There are three non-overlapping populations of the Barnacle Goose: one nests in Russia and winters in the Netherlands and northern Germany; the Svalbard population nests in an island archipelago halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole and winters on the Solway Firth in Scotland; and the population nesting in Greenland winters in western Scotland and western Ireland. None of them belong in the United States or Canada, but they have occasionally been reported here. The first North American record was in 1867, when one appeared on James Bay in Quebec. Sightings were sporadic until recent decades, with marked increases beginning in the 1990s, probably coinciding with greater enforcement of game conservation laws in Europe. But as beautiful and rare as they are, and much as I’d love to add Barnacle Goose to my lifelist, I don’t feel any deep need to chase one even as close as 50 miles away—at least, not if the driving involves New York City.

The brand new (2014) edition of Sibley shows the Pink-footed Goose. It's not shown in the first edition, from 2000. All six editions of the National Geographic field guide, starting in 1983, include the Pink-footed Goose. 

The Pink-footed Goose isn’t shown in any edition of the Golden or Peterson guides, because it had never been seen in North America when the first editions of those field guides were written, and was exceptionally rare until just recently. Except for its feet, the Pink-footed Goose is fairly nondescript, and not often kept in captivity in America. Its main claim to fame is its role in the book and movie The Big Year. When Sandy Komito broke the all-time record for a Big Year in 1998, as written about in Mark Obmascik’s book, the Pink-footed Goose Komito saw in Pennsylvania was a Code 5 species—the rarest classification—because fewer than three had been recorded in the previous 30 years. By 2004, there were 17 records of the species in the eastern North America, and one on in Washington State—the bird is now considered a Code 4, for birds that have been seen more than 3 times on the continent in the past 30 years but aren’t occurring annually, and soon may be downgraded on the rarity scale to a mere Code 3 because they seem to be turning up every year now. The movie The Big Year played with a lot of bird facts, and the oddest may have been its ending the year with Steve Martin and Jack Black’s characters seeing a Pink-footed Goose in Colorado, a state where none has ever been seen, in a tiny puddle in the snow, which could not possibly have furnished any waterfowl with food for any length of time.

The Pink-footed Goose breeds in Greenland. One population winters in Great Britain, mostly in Scotland; the other population winters mostly in the Netherlands and Denmark, and also in Norway, northern Germany, and Belgium.

Cool as Barnacle and Pink-footed Geese are, and as much as I'd love them on my lifelist, my dread of big city driving was larger than my hunger to see either, or even both together, so my car stayed in the same parking spot in Brooklyn until I left for home. There’d be no wild goose chase for me on that trip.

Then, just last week, I set out on a journey an order of magnitude longer than a mere 50 mile trip would have been, just to see a gull. But my wild gull chase is a story for another day.