A Pink-footed Goose comes to town:
Does anyone remember The Big Year, the 2011 movie about three maniac birders who race across North America trying to spot the highest number of different bird species in a single year? It became an instant classic…sort of. One of the birders, played by Jack Black, spends a lot of time trying to track down a Pink-footed Goose, which is a real bird even though it sounds like a species Hollywood made up just for the story. I remember watching this movie in an actual theater (remember those?) and not being sure what a Pink-footed Goose looked like and why they cared so much about seeing one. So, later, I looked it up. Then I got it.
Each fall, thousands of Pink-footed Geese leave their Arctic breeding grounds to spend the winter in Great Britain and other parts of Europe. Occasionally, however, one will take a wrong turn and end up on our side of the Atlantic. This is what local birders hope for. During the holiday season, when most people are dreaming about sugar plums, birders go to bed with visions of Pink-footed Geese (or similar) dancing in their heads. And for Cape Cod birders, Santa came early this year.
Last Saturday, I was at home helping my wife with the Christmas lights, when I received a text message from Casey. A customer had just told him about a Pink-footed Goose feeding with a gaggle of Canada Geese in the athletic field at the middle school in Orleans. My mind flashed back to The Big Year and I immediately dropped the Christmas lights, hopped into my car and was at the school four minutes later…and I was too late. There was no Pink-footed Goose and no gaggle of Canada Geese. The only thing I found was a flock of other birders. They all had big smiles on their faces while they gleefully boasted about seeing the European bird. And yes, it had flown off just before I arrived. (I hate these people…and they’re my friends.) Not wanting to miss out on seeing the rare goose (and certainly not wanting to return home to work on the Christmas lights), I spent the rest of the day searching nearby fields, ponds, and bays…and found nothing. I had become Jack Black, the loser in the movie. Ugh!
The next morning I was up and out at sunrise, which sounds early, but it’s not hard to do this time of year. I pulled into the middle school’s upper parking lot. This particular lot overlooks Eldridge Park, the home of the Orleans’ Firebirds (formerly, Cardinals). From here, I knew I would be able to see the entire field without ever getting out of my car. My plan worked perfectly…for a change. Down below, with about a dozen Canada Geese and eating on the same infield where a young Nomar Garciaparra once played baseball, was the visitor from Greenland. (In your face, Jack Black.)
Are Pink-footed Geese truly rare? No, they aren’t. In fact, like many North American geese, their population his been on the increase in recent decades. In addition to Greenland, Pink-footed Geese can also be found nesting in Iceland and in Svalbard, wherever that is. Fairly small for a goose, with a stubby little neck and actual pink feet, it looks nothing like our Canada Goose. Although back in Europe the Pink-footed Goose has several similar-looking cousins, including the Greylag Goose, the Greater White-fronted Goose and the goose with the best name ever, the Bean Goose. The Bean Goose is also a real bird, but it sounds like something vegatarians eat with the windows open (if you know what I mean).
If they aren’t rare, why is seeing this bird such a big deal? Well, they aren’t rare in Europe, but they are, until fairly recently, extremely rare in North America. The first record of a Pink-footed Goose ever spotted on this continent was in Newfoundland, in 1980. The first one seen here in Massachusetts was during the winter of 1999 at the Dennis Pines Golf Course. That was over twenty years ago, and since then there has only been one other record of this bird appearing on Cape Cod and that was on Salt Pond in Falmouth. That is why so many birders have rushed to the middle school. Traveling to Orleans is a whole lot easier than making a trip to Newfoundland, or Svalbard or to a location even farther away…Falmouth.
Even though Pink-footed Goose sightings are rare, they have become a bit more regular in recent years. According to a Massachusetts Avian Records report, a report I’m sure everyone has read already, there has been at least one Pink-footed Goose sighting somewhere in the state every year since 2014. The reasons for the sudden increase aren’t known. Is their population growing too large? Could the birds be expanding their wintering range? Or are they simply trying to get away from all that talk about Brexit? The answers to those questions are for someone else to figure out. Meanwhile, back at the middle school…
Usually, seeing a rare bird requires hours of stalking through dense swamps or enduring frigid temperatures on a beach somewhere. But on this sunny morning, I could watch this rarity while sitting in my car with the heat on and being totally comfortable. This was lazy bird watching at its finest. Everything was going great, until I spotted someone on the other side of the field. It was David Clapp, a sketchy birder from Brewster. I quickly locked my car doors and headed for home. I couldn’t wait to tell my wife what I had seen and, more importantly, to find out if she had finished putting up the Christmas lights without me. That’s what I was really hoping for.