In the world of birding, there is always an informal competition to be the “first” to report an unusual bird. It really means nothing, but still there is that small (very small) satisfaction gained from being a re-discoverer of something. I do not consider myself a birder, nor am I a lister, nor do I keep tabs on the rare bird alert or the internet/e-mail/blackberry/twitter bird announcements. I have been known to saunter to a reported rare bird location as long as it is a) close, b) convenient, c) the weather is good, and d) I do not have to wash my hair. Call me lazy or call me practical (or call me on the telephone and I might pick up).
You can also call me hypocritical. This month I actually scored a “first” and now have the audacity of trumpeting it here. Actually, the real credit goes to Chad (whose last name I will withhold) who reported the bird to me. I must note, however, that I was the first to properly identify the bird in question. I believe that counts for something doesn’t it? Chad was close, however, and if he really wants to claim the big money and trophy that comes from such a thing then he is more than welcome to it. He reported seeing a Snow Goose in amongst a flock of Canada Geese down by the Lake Erie shore.
I sauntered down to the lakeshore in order to see this bird since the situation satisfied all my rare bird requirements. Elsewhere on the planet Snow Geese are one of the most abundant fowl known to modern man, but again –it’s all about location. They are rare enough in our neck of the woods to be worthy of a glance (I blogged about one two years ago as a matter of fact). Upon reaching the location, I did not have to search very long before spotting it. The white bird stood out like a sore thumb.
For a moment my heart sank because I initially believed it to be nothing more than a domestic duck. It was a very small bird. Next to the surrounding Canada Geese it looked even smaller. Was this a duck? I peered through the high magnification of my camera viewer to see it. Even framed in 80X it still looked like a duck. The bird was resting on the ground with its head tucked over its back. Finally, it raised a very un-ducklike head and displayed a very goosey triangular bill. By golly it was a goose after all, but not your standard Snow Goose. It was a diminutive relative of the Snow Goose called a Ross’s Goose.
I verbally reported the creature to certain songbirds and the sighting hit the web. There were birders looking for it within hours and, oddly enough, I felt kinda sorta almost proud. Don’t ask me why.
Ross’s Geese, like Snow Geese, are white birds with black primary wing feathers. They are easily separated from the latter species by their small size, rounder head, shorter neck, and squat pinkish bill lacking the black “sneer” patch (a mark that looks more like poorly applied black lipstick). Like the Snows, they nest in the high Arctic and winter in the western U.S. Ross’s are far less common than Snow Geese as well, but are still extremely abundant.
My little Ross’s has continued to stick with his adopted gang of Canadians. Like a Chihuahua among Great Danes he has been grazing, resting, and swimming with them for the past few days. It is an added bonus that this particular little lost goose was a pure blood as well – a thing that makes it a little more “specialer.” There apparently are some hybrid Ross’s/Snow Geese out there that exhibit a confusing combination of traits. These birds don’t count for either species on the birder lists or are, at least, assigned an asterisk on that list.
But, in the long run, I realize that it is unfair for me or any other contemporary to claim this bird. This species was named in honor of the Hudson’s Bay Factor Bernard Ross (1824-1874). Ross, apart from sporting the largest mutton-chop sideburns in all the Northwest Territories, was an amateur naturalist of note. The goose that ended up with his name was known to fur traders since the late 1700’s. They called them “Horned Waveys” for some reason (where that name came from can only be chalked up to long lonely liquor-filled nights). Ross himself never described the bird officially, but it was dubbed Chen rossii by naturalist John Cassin in 1861. So, you see, this bird has belonged to Mr. Ross for 150 years.