Thursday January 10, 2013

EAST CHATHAM, N.Y.

Over the holidays, winter arrives with a double flurry of snowstorms that thrill the skiers and send birds flocking to the feeders. Pine siskins have come and gone; purple finches mingle with the goldfinches now fighting for a dining space with the fifty or so redpolls that descend as soon as there is snow cover.

There are redpolls everywhere: all over each feeder, on the ground, lurking in the trees, dotting the bushes. At one point, the thistle feeder, a cylindrical screen tube, has twenty one redpolls feeding at the same time. These birds are so intent on feeding that they do not move when another bird sits upon its head!

Not only have the winter finches arrives, so have the other birds from the far north. On a quick side trip near Kinderhook, Danny and I find a rough-legged hawk sitting in a stark tree near the road. Not far away a kestrel scans the fields from atop a telephone pole. Nearby where we turn around to get a better view of the hawk, we scare up a flock of fifty snow buntings from the road. Three nice pick-ups for our 2012 list.

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Now on to our dilemma -- did we see a cackling goose or not on the Christmas Count in Central Berkshire? Did we get a life bird? From the early days of ornithology growing as a science, the cackling goose has flummoxed the best of birders.


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In Arthur Cleveland Bent’s "Life Histories of North American Birds" (1925), he states in the cackling goose entry: "The characters which warrant the separation of the Canada goose group into four subspecies have been so generally misunderstood and so poorly designated in most of the manuals, and the nomenclature of the group has been so variable and puzzling, that much confusion has existed as to the true relationships of the various forms and their distribution." Bent divides the Canada into four subspecies all very similar to one another, but with distinctive minor variations: the Canada, the Hutchins, the white-faced and the cackling.

The Canada goose, present all across America, and the cackling goose, which lives along the west coast and breeds in Alaska, look very much alike. The cackling though is only the size of a duck and has a higher-pitched honk, more like a cackle. And it has a comparatively stubby beak. If only the bird we saw on the count opened its mouth and cackled and cackled. It definitely was the size of a duck and it’s beak was stubby, but the question is was it stubby enough to be a cackler?

So I pull out one field guide after another reading up on the Canadas and cacklings. Dick Pough in the "Audubon Western Guide" (1957) lumps the Canada, Hutchins, white-faced and cackling in the index only following Bent. No mention or illustration in the text. But in his earlier "Audubon Water Bird Guide" (1951) the Canada is illustrated with a smaller race bird stating only, "some are huge birds while others from the Far North are no larger than a mallard."

In "The Waterfowl of the World" by Peter Scott Key (1961, revised 1972), he illustrates the Canada goose with 12 subspecies: the Atlantic, the giant, the dusky, the central, the great basin, and vancouver (all large); the lesser and the Tavener’s (both medium sized); and the cackling, the Aleutian, Richardson’s and the Bering (all small). Who knew? The ardent lister could have quite the expanded list!

An early Peterson’s (1962) has only the Canada and the Hutchins which is illustrated along with the Canada but has a written entry only in an appendix on Subspecies. More recently, he has illustrated the Canada with Atlantic, Lesser and Richardson’s race.

I fast forward to my most recent guide: The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America (2009). There are now two distinct recognized species: the Canada goose (Branta canadensis) and the cackling goose (Branta hutchinsii) each with defined subspecies. I double check this with my field card from the ABA (American Birding Association) and they also have these birds as separate species.

I go to the two books I have about hard-to-identify birds: Peterson’s "Advanced Birding" and "Identify Yourself" by Bill Thompson. Neither has entries for these birds. So are they readily distinguished in the field? Are they found in gaggles of their own species only? Are they usually found in separate localities? How does one tell them apart? Look at the size and the stubby bill. Listen for that cackle.

We fill in the paper work to record this unusual sighting at Laurel Lake for the Audubon count people and include the five photos. We have not heard back yet. But then Danny sent it in to this new service, the E-bird service. They asked for photos and Danny duly sent them in. The response: that the bill wasn’t stubby enough and that this bird was probably a runt.

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I’m glad we had photos, but identification from photos is very difficult. I find that field guides that use photos to illustrate field marks are impossible to use. The cut-out photos make the bird static and it illustrates only one individual which could have variations that are not real field marks.

If there were runts flying in among the Canadas, wouldn’t we have seen a few over the last 50 years when we have observed thousands and thousands and thousands of geese?

In the last year’s Christmas Count there were 63 cackling geese observed in the North East on 27 different counts. Many have been reported this year too though summary data is not available yet.

I am reminded of the story about Willie Nelson when he was caught with another woman by his wife. He supposedly said: "Are you going to believe your eyes, or what I tell you?" So did we see a cackling paddling nonchalantly among the much larger ordinary Canadas? Did Danny and I add a bird to our life list? We shall see.

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle
contributor.