Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Small geese on the move

This past week has seen a very welcome retreat from single digit temperatures and snow covered ground and even gave the impression of spring. Nearly all of the snow melted away and the day-time high has probably averaged a little over 35 F for the week. Apparently the birds have taken this as their cue to move as blackbirds and waterfowl (geese in particular) have really begun to move north again. I'm afraid their migration will have to take a hiatus as the majority of ponds and flooded fields froze back over only a couple days after they opened up. This has given us the unique opportunity of finding the streams and rivers that are open and going through really nice concentrations of geese earlier in the year than is usual for Wisconsin (late Feb through March sees the bulk of these small geese).
Yesterday my dad and I swung by Sugar Creek near the Burlington Airport and located a pretty decent concentration of ~600 Canada Geese that also had three very small Cackling Geese accompanying them. I was able to take 7 photos of these guys before they flew, of which, three actually show pretty decent detail.The identification of Cackling Geese is not exactly straight forward. There are a whole host of characteristics that could indicate that the bird is a Cackling Goose but only a few that are relatively diagnostic. The size and shape of the beak is one of the best field marks to use. The Cackling Goose is very small and the length of the beak is 50% or less than the width of of the head (compared to 70%+ for Canada Goose). The forehead on a Cackling is also very steep and almost angular compared to the more smoothed over head of the Canada Goose.Other characteristics such as the presence of a white collar at the base of the neck is variable and found in both species. Richardson's Cackling (which is the most likely here in the midwest) also tends to have a lighter colored feathering in the breast.In the above photo it's quite difficult to tell if the left bird has a lighter breast than the adjacent Canada Goose.

This afternoon I checked several other locales for geese and turned up (presumably) the same two Cackling Geese along Sugar Creek near Burlington. They were farther away and despite the light being better, I hadn't brought my scope along so a chance to improve on the above images wasn't really there. I continued on and checked an open area on Honey Creek just over the Walworth County line in between the two small "towns" of Honey Lake and Honey Creek. This particular location has an s-shaped bend in the stream that stays open all winter. At least 200 Canada Geese managed to successfully winter on this small area of open water. I figured they would have attracted many more migrant geese and sure enough, over 1000 geese were present in this stretch of the creek. I was lucky and spotted a group of 4 Greater White-fronted Geese roosting on the ice very close to me and edged up to get better photos (still pretty mediocre...why didn't I bring the scope!?). I took ten shots of the birds (below) and didn't think I would do any better at that distance and I didn't want to run the risk of flushing them if I moved even closer so I turned to leave.
A minute later just as I was getting into my car over half the geese irrupted into the air and came flying right over me. I never saw what prompted them to flush, but I located two of the white-fronts and managed to catch them flying over in the midst of a flock of Canada's. It's good to have these guys back, albeit temporarily, now to find some of those small white geese...

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