Monday, March 1, 2010

The First Two Weeks in Churchill: A Wild Goose Chase

With a good 3-4 feet of snow on the ground in most places around Churchill, and no shorebirds, we had nothing to do (for work). But, put 4 birders together in Churchill, during the first stages of spring migration, with a car… the only logical thing to do is to go birding! And, for the first two weeks, that is pretty much all we did. It was a really incredible experience watching spring migration from beginning to end in a place like Churchill. The first half of spring migration consisted mainly of waterfowl, and of those waterfowl, most were geese. Hundreds of thousands of Snow, Ross’, Canada, and Cackling Geese passed through the area, with smaller numbers of Greater White-fronted Geese. On one particularly warm, clear day in early June, Brad and I counted over 100,000 Snow and Ross’ Geese fly over one point in under an hour. On some days, Ross’ Geese would outnumber Snow Geese (which, coming from New York, is pretty cool). With so many white geese passing through the area, we were ever vigilant for the mythical “Blue” Ross’ Goose, the dark form of Ross’ Goose which is rarely seen and even more rarely photographed. For several days during the first week of June, we found some interesting candidates, but we determined those to be Snow Goose x Ross’ Goose hybrids. However, on June 5th, or vigilance paid off, and we found a pair of seemingly pure dark Ross’ Geese. It was neat to compare those birds to the Blue Snows and the dark hybrids we were finding. In addition to the Blue Ross', we also found some other interesting oddball geese, such as an apparent Snow x Cackling Goose, and a leucistic Cackling Goose.

All five local geese are in this picture... can you find all five?

A mix flock of mostly Ross' and Snow Geese along Goose Creek Road, outside of Churchill. There are also some Northern Pintail in this picture

Foraging geese: in this picture, there are Snow, Ross', Canada, and Cackling

The mythical Blue Ross' Goose: poor digiscope quality, but, you can really pick the one bird out quite easily in the top photo. Both birds are in the bottom photo. It probably helps to click on the picture to get a larger version

With so many Branta geese passing through, of several subspecies, it was a real opportunity to study Canada and Cackling Geese side by side. And what a task it turned out to be. The range of color, shape, and size ran all the way from normal Canada Goose to normal Cackling Goose, and everything in between, to the point that some individuals or even groups of birds were just unable to be identified with confidence.

It's tough to pick out, but this picture shows the leucistic Cackling Goose we found. It's ghostly pale, and blends into the snowy background quite well

Due to the extensive snow and ice cover in early June, most of the geese (and most of the birds around, for that matter) were concentrated in relatively few locations, most of which were low lying, near the Churchill River. As a result, most of these locations experienced heavy goose browsing, and were left barren mud flats when the geese left.

Sandhill Crane hanging out with some Cackling and Canada Geese. There are a few pairs of cranes that nest around Churchill, and during migration, we would get some decent flocks (100-200 birds) around town

As a consequence of a late spring and summer, the Snow Geese that nest around La Perouse Bay, about 30 kilometers east of Churchill, failed. Nests were initiated over a week later than the latest date on record, and many had to be placed in sub-optimal locations due to high water levels. This left goose nests far more susceptible to predation, and by July, most, if not all goose nests had been depredated. Geese farther south, however, along James Bay, had a far more successful year, as did geese elsewhere in the Arctic.

By the end of the second week of June, almost all of the Snow, Ross', Cackling, and White-fronted Geese had departed the Churchill area, and all that was left were the breeding Canada Geese.

One of the last groups of Greater White-fronted Geese we saw for the spring

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