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Saturday, October 22, 2011

What's So Great About That Ross Guy, Anyway?

It’s odd, I think, that I should find myself in the exact same position as last week. A rare bird gets reported in the Jordan Lake area, but I can’t get to it because I’m at work. Such are the pains of the working birder. However, like last week, I was able to find the bird in question after trials and tribulations that I’m positive don’t plague most birders while they’re twitching (though they probably do).

A local birder found an odd goose on a little pond in her subdivision, and posted the photos to the forums. On the whole it looked every bit like a Ross’s Goose – right bill shape, small size, and, er, predominantly white. But it seemed to show a little too much grin, a trademark characteristic of its larger cousin, the Snow Goose. The bird merited further investigation if it returned the next day.

Sure enough, by the following morning, the bird returned its little pond, surrounded by the Canada Geese it associates with. Nate refound it first, and I texted Mark about the find right away, as he happened to be in the area. Both guys confirmed it in the field as a Ross’s Goose, and ordinarily I wouldn’t give chase (I do have three other Ross’s Geese in the state, after all), but the bird was just so darn close! It was my duty as a birder! Work, however, stood like a colossal mountain separating me from my quarry.

Once I got off work (finally), I made a bee-line for the subdivision, and luckily found the bird right away. Wait, that’s right, it never works like that for me. No, instead today was the day they decided to repave Highway 751 for literally the entire two-mile stretch between where I was and where I had to go. Cars lined up fifty deep waiting for a sole flagman to determine their fate. What should have been a five minute trip took fifteen, which was no good – this time yesterday, the Ross’s Goose flew off with its compatriots for roosts unknown.

After what seemed like an eternity, the subdivision pond was within my sight, and I could see the geese were still there. I saw a small group of birders down by the shore, and began towards them, but the paved path down to the pond lay longer than it seemed online (damn you Google Maps!), and I couldn’t seem to gain any ground. Suddenly, I saw a small white speck pick up out of the water and march its way onto the nearby grassy hillside (don’t fly, don’t fly!). As I neared, dodging jogger and baby stroller with a deftness I didn’t know I possessed, the goose began to feed (don’t fly, don’t fly!). Finally, I found myself next to Mark and Jennifer, the birder who’d found this amazing sighting to begin with. I steadied my camera (don’t fly, don’t fly!) and – there! Snapped the shot!

Small, with a rounded head and petite bill - that's the ticket!

Thankfully, the bird made its way towards the one patch of sun near the pond, but the evening light made exposing it difficult. It’s a juvenile bird, with a dusky head and a gray bill, nothing like the pink-and-blue bill you’ll find on an adult Ross’s Goose. Still, it’s the closest I’ve ever seen one of these guys. I edged a little closer, and the luckily the bird didn’t seem to mind, appearing intent on eating whatever grass it could chow down before leaving for the night. If only I could have spent a little more time with the bird, but despite the factors conspiring against me, I still managed this decent shot.

Easier than finding one amongst 30,000 Snow Geese... but more on that story later.

The moment couldn’t last, however. As I snapped my fifth and final shot, after only spending less than five minutes with the bird, I heard a loud bleat and watched as a large Canada Goose nipped at the Ross’s, who immediately took flight with a quick series of staccato honks. As it banked east, the bird passed from Wake County (where it had been lounging all day) to the nearby Chatham County, and disappeared behind houses and trees for parts unknown.

Like last week, I decided to sit down and research who this Ross guy was and why he deserved this cool little goose named after him. Turns out he was the chief mercantile at a remote post in the Northwest Territories of Canada, and like Franklin before him, he shot the bird and sent it to someone more knowledgeable, in this case John Cassin, aka the Finch/Sparrow/Vireo guy. I don’t particularly mind Ross’s Goose as a name for this bird (not sure why), plus I suppose that Some-Lonely-Canadian-Dude Goose doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

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