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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Thar She Honks!

It all started over five months ago, when local birder Jennifer Schrand noticed an odd white goose hanging out among her local Canada Geese. Turns out, that goose was a rare midwestern Ross’s Goose, albeit a young and dingy one. James chased it then, twice. But each time, we missed it – the rare goose appeared to have headed back to its rightful home.

Fast forward to late last month. Another birder reported the goose continued, just a couple miles from its previous location, at a suburban lake. After seeing the pictures, and a promising report that it could be seen from a nearby field, James and I attempted to chase it once again, a full four months after we’d last tried. Arriving at the lake, we found only a couple Canada Geese, some Ruddy Ducks, and a Bufflehead. Still, we could celebrate that day after finding a confiding Canvasback working his way across the lake – my first wild drake, and the closest I’ve ever been to one. But there was no sign of the goose. It was becoming a nemesis for James, his Moby-Dickey bird. The White Goose.

A bittersweet consolation prize. Wait, that's not the word... a sweet consolation prize!

Disappointed in our birding experience, we turned to our old standby of Mason Farm. Of course, being rather windy and cloudy, the birding turned out to be rather mundane. But now we’ve got a new hobby, and no matter the weather there’s always the allure of herping! After just a few logs (and several Marbleds), we found a nice White-spotted Slimy Salamander, the very unknown species I’d found last week. Luckily, this guy decided to not be as slimy as the last guy, and was rather photogenic instead.

Peter Venkman quotes need not apply.

Working through the same grove of pines, we continued to find Marbled Salamanders, albeit in fewer numbers than before. It seems like they really like logs with cool earth underneath, but are relatively dry. With our recent rains, most of the land I’ve been finding them in has become saturated, and the salamanders seem to’ve taken up residence elsewhere. Still, there were other herps to be found, and under the same burned log as last week, James and I found this beautiful juvenile Eastern Narrowmouth Toad!

The same individual? For some reason, it seems more colorful.

After the Rough Green Snake my two Brown Snakes last week, I’ve had pretty bad luck with the serpentine aspect of herping. Still, you have to try, and every so often you’re rewarded. Under a small log James suspected of hiding a Marbled Salamander, he instead found this tiny snake, not more than three inches long when outstretched. It’s spade-shaped head, pink underbelly, and tail spine mark it as a Worm Snake, an incredibly common reptile in these parts, but one difficult to see thanks to its subterranean habits.

In all honesty, this is the smallest snake I've ever seen!

Not all herping is turning over logs, of course. Sometimes you can find herps chilling in the middle of the path, but other times you have to be more inventive. Perhaps there’s a rock that looks nice, or some old plywood that looks flippable. At one point, I found a tree with some loose bark, and on a whim I decided to pull it back, revealing this male Carolina Anole. You may be asking – how do I know it’s a male? After all, it’s quite brown. When I caught it, the lizard attempted to bite my finger, and at the same time flashed his trademark dewlap, betraying his gender and making for one totally cool experience.

Now if I can just get a green one doing the same thing1

The day wore on and the herping grew thin, so we began to plan for the next day. We decided to try for the Ross’s Goose a fourth and final time – after all, Jennifer had seen it in the field several times that week, and it’s hard to turn down such a regular lifer. Early in the morning, we pulled up to an old corn maze to discover a large group of Canada Geese working the fallen millet. Even from the car, I could see the blazing white of another creature. Like old Queequeg, I called out from my shotgun seat: “That’s it  – Ross’s Goose!

"Thar, thar - She honks, she honks!"

James rushed out of the car and snapped his lifer photo. After so many attempts at the bird, he seemed relieved to’ve seen it, and at such a close range. But the question remains – is this the same bird that made its home in the suburbs over the winter? I find it unlikely that another small white goose found it’s way into Cary, North Carolina. Perhaps, outside of our watching gaze, our juvenile goose molted into the adult plumage it’ll keep for the rest of its life. There’s really no way to know, lest you drag yourself into a sea of uncertainty. For now, I think I’ll enjoy the bird I have – my White Goose. 

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