Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Snow Goose in the Athens!

Last night (November 3rd), I got an email on the Athens Area Birders message board; a local birder had spotted a juvenile Snow Goose earlier in the day along the Hocking River right in Athens. I was absolutely ecstatic; I have been wanting to see a Snow Goose for years and years, but they have eluded me year after year. I had seen other rare geese, from the Ross's Goose to the Cackling Goose to the Greater White-Fronted Goose, but never a Snow Goose. Oddly enough, the Snow Goose is the next most commonly found goose in Ohio after the Canada Goose, although it is still rare. Time after time I had seen geese rarer than the Snow Goose, but my lifer Snow Goose was no where to be found. But finally, after years of looking and hoping, I have seen my birding white whale: the Snow Goose.

Snow Goose with Canada Geese
The morning after reading that email happened to be my ornithology lab. It was a "dry lab" today, meaning we were inside looking at study skins and other goodies. I told the TA about the possible Snow Goose hanging out along the Hocking River, only a 5 minute walk from the classroom. He excitedly suggested we all take a field trip and go look for the goose. A few minutes later we were staring out over the river, trying to see if the Snow Goose was still hanging out. Normally there is a large group of Canada Geese present, but there were only 5 at the moment. The birder who found the Snow Goose yesterday said it was mixed in with that large Canada Goose flock, but the flock was no where to be found. A few minutes later we look up to see about 20 Canada Geese flying at us, and that's when it hit me; the geese hadn't returned from their nightly roost in the fields yet! Sure enough, that group of geese landed in the river, but still no Snow Goose. Another group flew from over the hills toward us, but once again no Snow Goose. A third group came a few seconds after, still no Snow Goose. Then the fourth group made its appearance. My friend Alayna Tokash suddenly yelled "THERE IT IS!" I trained my camera on the flying flock and there he was - a single white goose among the Canada Geese. The group of geese, with Snow Goose included, landed in the river and joined the rest of the flock. And just like that, the hunt for my Snow Goose was over.

Map courtesy of Terry Sohl over at South Dakota Birds and Birding!

You might be wondering why this goose is so special, and why I was so excited to see it. The Snow Goose is a rare, but regular, visitor to Ohio. As you can see in the range map above, the Snow Goose breeds in the high Arctic and overwinters in various places around the US and Mexico. You can also see that none of their migration flyways go through Ohio; in fact, we are right between the Atlantic and the Mississippi flyways. If you were to go to either of these flyways and witness Snow Goose migration, you could see groups of several thousands flying or stopping over in a field or waterway. Being in between flyways, Ohio does get a few dozen of the individuals each year who are on the fringes. Oftentimes a storm or front system might blow them off course and into Ohio. I'm not sure if there's any know reasons for the others who show up (such as this one) that aren't associated with a front. This one was a juvenile; he just might not have his migration navigation down yet. There could also be a multitude of other factors. Regardless, when the Snow Goose does show up in Ohio, it's normally along Lake Erie or at least in the western half of the state. To get one in Athens in southeastern Ohio is really, really awesome.

Snow Goose Ohio
The Snow Goose, Chen caerulescens, is a medium-sized goose. It's larger than the various "miniature" geese species (with the similarly-looking Ross's Goose being the miniature species "version" of the Snow Goose), but smaller than most Canada Geese subspecies, including the subspecies we have in Ohio. There are two color morphs of the Snow Goose, a white morph and what's called the blue morph. The blue morph has a dark brown/gray body with a white head. This specific individual is a white morph juvenile, as can be told by the dusky brown tinge and dark bill. Adults of the white morph will be a clean white with a pink bill.

Snow Goose Ohio
There are a few characteristics a person should look for when they come across a possible Snow Goose. Not all white geese are Snow Geese (or Ross's Geese). The vast majority of white geese people see in Ohio are simply domesticated geese of some sort. These domestic geese tend to be all white with a relatively large butt (which I've heard informally called a "diaper butt"). Snow Geese will have a much smaller butt (compare to this domestic goose). The most important characteristic, however, is the black wingtips. Domestic geese will have all white wings, while the primaries (think wingtip feathers) of a Snow Goose will be black. You can see this really well in the photo above; look for the black feathers near the rump of the goose. It's always important to double check a white goose before jumping to an identification; for example, there's a domestic white goose that likes to hang out in the Hocking River in town that I've gotten excited about many times before, only to realize it's not a Snow Goose like I thought.

Greater White-Fronted Goose (left) and Cackling Goose (right)

Interestingly, this isn't the first rare goose to show up on the Hocking River in Athens. Last year I was chasing two continuing Greater White-Fronted Geese when I then found two Cackling Geese, both rare geese for Ohio. I made a post covering these two, which you can read here. This brings up a question that I'm not sure has an answer. Have small numbers of these rare geese species regularly shown up in the Hocking River over the years, or has some factor resulted in a recent influx of these species, or is this simply a coincidence? More and more rare birds are being found every week in Ohio, but I think a large reason behind that is the internet. More and more birders are finding rare birds and reporting them to the masses via the internet; before this, most of the birders might tell a few select friends or just keep the sightings to themselves. As a result, I think the internet has given us a false perception of rare birds. Rare birds have always visited Ohio, but now it's easy to find out about them, and more eyes are looking for them. This factor might force us to reconsider what's "rare" and what's not in the upcoming years.

Snow Goose Ohio

Hopefully this Snow Goose is just one of many rare birds for the winter months. Finding or chasing rare birds is one of the many exciting parts of birding; it's just thrilling to see something in a place it shouldn't be. It also makes seeing certain birds much easier; for example, I didn't have to travel to say Greenland to see a Black-Legged Kittiwake, I could just see one 45 minutes from home. Birding is a treasure hunt played out across the globe, and rare birds are some of the most sought-after prizes.

Snow Goose Ohio
That's it for this post! I'll be heading to Lake Erie this weekend to do some birding, so stay tuned for more birdy-posts! Thanks for reading!


  1. It's kinda funny to read this from Illinois where I can just drive a few minutes away and see thousands of migrating geese. At the same time, you also have a lot more Appalachian species of plants and animals present in your state than in Illinois. The grass is always greener...

  2. It's kinda funny to read this from Illinois where I can just drive a few minutes away and see thousands of migrating geese. At the same time, you also have a lot more Appalachian species of plants and animals present in your state than in Illinois. The grass is always greener...