Now, when I go on my little birding adventures, far or away....I usually have a plan of my target birds. Age and experience has taught me to do my homework. By knowing what I am looking for and the clues of distinguishment, I have a far far far better chance of finding my target bird. It is simply a matter of knowing what to look for. Even when I am in real busy areas with a multitude of new birds, the more I visually am aware of what to look for, the more I find. In some cases it is just a matter of perusing the field guide so you have some idea of what you will find. So in a few weeks when I visit the Everglades, I already have my target birds in mind, my homework.
So....the target bird for today was a Ross's Goose...and yes to steer away any anticipation you might have building up inside of you about whether I had success or not, yes, I ID'd one or two of them. Yet, no photos since they were fairly far away and I was 'scoping' it but I am putting it in the books as a Ross's or two. If I was doing a Big Year, in today's world, perhaps I would need an image to ID it, but you know what? I am not doing a Big Year so my 'guess' is good enough.
As I drove up Wildlife Drive I found humor in a small Canada Goose flock that first came to my attention. They were on ice, as the temperature was still hovering around 32. As one goose walked to the other, they slid on the ice. One step, a small slide....bring up the other web foot and take another step and slide an inch or two. Funny...almost cartoonish.
Just prior to the tower there were hundreds if not a thousand of Snow Goose near 150 yards or more away from my car. My challenge was set...as they were just out there, patiently awaiting my arrival as they managed to form a front-line of easily 100 yards, spread not too thinly. Since nature was being a bit on the freezing side, I swapped out of my fleece and into what I used to call my 'outside recess jacket' when I was still teaching grade school. I grabbed my scope and used my car as partial shelter although little wind was blowing today. Did I really say that? Really...no wind?
Slowly I worked my way thru the front row of geese as they lined up in army trench warfare fashion. As I observed I Ticked off each goose and placed them into these categories; (a) being an obvious Snow Goose, (b) many that were classified as I can't tell since they have their heads buried in their feathers to (c) probable, I slowly ID'd at least one if not two. That isn't bad since I was only looking at the outer edges.
My 'homework' told me a few things....first and according to the bible, (Sibley) stated the size of a Snow Goose is between 28-32 inches while the length of a Ross's is 22-24, so quite a difference. In addition, Ross's usually do not have a 'dark phase' and their plumage usually will not get rusty near the head/neck caused by water and algae. Usually, the juvenile Snow Goose will have dusky plumage around the head and on the back as well. It is highly important to note the word 'usually'....as I hear that often when looking at differences between the two species. Usually....usually, and usually.....and that is not to even mention the 'hybrid' brand out there. So generically speaking, or is that genetically speaking? ...regardless, I had a few things to go on.
Since I wasn't close enough even with my scope (not being a $8,000 Swaro), I couldn't pick up on whether the sleezy little grin that Snow Geese have was present, or I should say, the wide bevelled gap between mandibles was something I could not view well, nor was the fact that some juvenile Ross's have a black eyeliner in back of their eye. So that bit of homework, although essential, was not put into play on my little adventure today.
Okay, so given all of that...what did I find? I found smaller geese, and in fact much smaller geese, with no dark plumage on head or back.....and with what appeared to be smaller bills. But the important aspect was simply their size. Yes Batman, the size. Out at Forsythe today, there was this 'partial ice/water' thing going on so most of the geese were actually on top of the ice. Even at my distance I could easily distinguish out a few good geese that were measurable shorter, squatty almost...... as they moved about. One was really obvious as it wattled next to several other large-size geese and I tagged that one as my Ross's. Sometimes, you just make the call.
So with success, my idea was to drive on the flip-side of the drive where I could already tell was being invaded by a thousand or more Snow Goose and perhaps they might even be closer to my car. But, no such luck. Just as I was driving past the tower, the entire flocks of birds took off.
What a site and what a sound. I just stopped my car and observed them fly over me. It seemed that initially there was one leader, the king goose or perhaps the emperor's goose. Either way, the flock was led by that goose and they essentially ended up following the drive east in perfect direction. There were hundreds of smaller "v' formations forming. Some had as little as 5-6 geese while others had 20 or more. How does that happen? How do birds know to which 'v' they belong to and does it make a difference? Are they family orientated or friend orientated or gender, or age related or? I have no idea and I am thinking that no one else knows either. But those questions are pondered. In fact, we should all take the time to ponder those types of questions and push ourselves into becoming 'nature scholars.' You see, the minute you stop asking questions is the minute you stop learning, right? And a scholar will continuously ask questions, so think about it and practice that self-questioning art.
So I asked questions and just looked at this immense flock of geese stretching along the drive for a hundred yards min on each side of the road. Then, they split into two main segments with one heading for Atlantic City while the other veered off heading northeast. Hmmm...why? I thought initially that the ones heading north were migrating back to the 55+ community up near Little Egg Harbor Township and Tuckerton and thought that that flock must have been the 'older set'. But no, that can't be ....for the older set usually migrates to Atlantic City to gamble on the slots. So my idea of the flocks being split by 'age' wasn't a go.....
I had no idea if the two flocks were split by 'gender'....for even if I saw a goose upclose as in 'roadkill' could I ID gender. So I didn't give that a thought. Family orientation could be a possibility but then again, as the two flocks split, with each going there own way....there were quite a number of birds who changed sides, sort of speaking.....Changing sides, as in sexual orientation....no, that can't be either and besides, that is 'way too Seinfieldish in thought'. Hmmm....so essentially I stumped myself and had no answer as to why the birds split up into two separate flocks and why, or how birds meet up in flight to form their 'v' formations. My two main questions that I asked myself as they 'took off' are still left unanswered but I do regard myself as a nature scholar for the mere act of asking myself those questions. So good to know that I am a nature scholar. I ask questions.....I look up information.
Now, remember that next time you go birding...force yourself to be that nature scholar. Put yourself in their 'claws' and 'web feet' and think like a bird. What is going on in that bird-brain and what drives their behavior?