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Monday, January 16, 2012

Return of our Snow Goose?

Back on December 9th Heydi and I discovered a Ross's Goose on Coney Island Creek. A few minutes later we spotted an American Avocet (and quickly forgot about the goose). Within a day the Ross's Goose disappeared only to be replaced by the very similar Snow Goose. At first, some of us suspected that the Ross's was just being misidentified as a Snow. It wasn't until Shane took a photograph of the "replacement" goose that we realized that it was, indeed, a Snow Goose. It was a peculiar situation for a couple of reasons. First, it is very unusual for either species of white goose to be present on Coney Island Creek. Second, to have one take off just as the other, extremely similar, species arrived succeeded in confusing more that a few birders. But this odd story doesn't end there.

Once Shane sent me the photo of the Snow Goose, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to create a posting that compares the two white geese of Coney Island Creek. It wasn't until I had been looking at the Snow Goose photo for a while that I realized that there was an even more interesting story to be told, but first let's look at these two birds. The top photo is of the Snow Goose, the lower is the Ross's Goose.
Both are nearly all white with black wing tips. The most obvious difference between the two species is the bill size and shape. The Ross's has a much smaller, shorter bill with little or no "grin patch". The bill is also more triangular than the Snow's (specifically, a right triangle). Note also that the Ross's often has a bluish color to the base. The Ross's also has a smallish, rounded head. Notice the steep slope of the Snow Goose's head. I don't know if it's typical of all Ross's Goose, but this individual also seems to have a very small eye.

Overall size is also important in separating the Ross's Goose from the Snow Goose. While the size of a single bird foraging or floating in the water is difficult to judge, both of these birds were associating with a flock of Canada Geese making it much easier. Note their sizes in these photos next to the canadas. The Snow Goose is nearly the size of the Canada Goose, while the Ross's could fit inside of one. Here are their proportions from "The Sibley Guide to Birds":

Ross's Goose - lg: 23" ws: 45" wt: 2.7 lb
Snow Goose (lesser) - lg: 28" ws: 53" wt: 5.3 lb
                   (greater) - lg: 31" ws: 56" wt: 7.4 lb

Even keeping in mind the large size range for Snow Geese, there is still a significant difference in bulk between the Ross's Goose and the Snow Goose. There is nothing better than field experience for learning to separate these two similar birds, but given the Ross's Goose rarity around New York City, I hope this helps. Now for the other part of this Brooklyn story.

During the Fall migration of 2005 a Snow Goose with an injured wing appeared in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery. The advice I received at the time was to leave the bird alone because the difficulty involved in trying to capture it could have made the wing worse. My friend Marge began bringing the goose cracked corn and, eventually, the goose settled into a non-migratory routine in the landmark cemetery. I wrote all about her in this posting. By 2009 she began wandering farther and farther from the cemetery's Sylvan Water with her adopted flock of Canada Geese. Her right wing healed, somewhat, but still had a noticeable droop. Whenever Marge showed up with cracked corn, the Snow Goose would hurry to her car for a free handout. She would sometimes even glide down to the lake from the surrounding hillsides or make short flights of limited elevation. Then one day in 2009 Marge called to say that "Mommy" (her name for the goose) was missing from the Sylvan Water and she couldn't find her anywhere in the cemetery. We never saw her again, which brings me back to the lone Snow Goose now residing in Coney Island Creek. Take a look at the tip of the right wing in both the Green-Wood Cemetery photos and the Coney Island photos. Normally, the black wingtips of a Snow Goose cross over above their tail. Could we have finally found "Mommy"? There is only one way to be absolutely certain. The Green-Wood Cemetery bird responded to Marge's voice. Whenever she would go to the cemetery to feed him/her, she would shout in a sing-song voice, with a distinctive Brooklyn accent, "Mooommmy!" The small white goose with the crooked wing would rush towards her mumbling a nasal "whouk, whouk, whouk, whouk, whouk" the whole time. Marge and I will go to Coney Island Creek and, before she begins to call her old friend, I'll be sure to have the video rolling.


brandon said...

What a beautiful story. Good luck!

Starz723 said...

Im hoping its Mommy.That would surely make my day or my year for that matter. I hope she is still there when we go on Thursday. I wonder if a goose has a memory and the call of my distinct voice would be imprinted. I became very attached to Mommy. We have video of her actually "running" as opposed to flying towards me when I would call her name. We used to find that just amazing. There were times when Mommy was the only bird by the lake when it froze over. It took her years to eventually heal her wing. The day she vanished was a sad one for me and I assumed she took off with the Canada Geese. When the juvie snow geese showed up and stayed with mommy for over a year through the summer, they eventually migrated away, I will never forget the scene when they circled the lake honking for mommy to join them. Mommy, in desperation honking back as if to say, "dont leave me". They took several passes around the lake honking for her to fly with them, but she just couldnt, her wing was not strong enough for any flight. Then one day, a year later, I saw her soar over the hill onto Sylvan Water with a flock of Canada Geese. The next day, she was gone and I assumed the pull to migrate away and the fact that she could now finally fly was the reason I could not find her. I would love to be reunited with Mommy. It would be like something out of movie.

bio said...

beautiful, indeed

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