Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Ross's Geese in Athens!

This February has shaped up to be one of the most spectacular migratory goose flights in Ohio in awhile. Beginning in the first week of the month, reports started pouring in from around the state on eBird, Birding Ohio, and other media reporting flocks of dozens to even hundreds of Snow Geese, Ross's Geese, and Greater White-Fronted Geese. These species of geese are pretty rare in Ohio, but each winter will often bring many scattered reports of one or two individuals mixed in with a flock of Canada Geese. The past 2 weeks, for some reason, has brought very large flocks of these rare geese throughout Ohio.

Ross's Geese in Snow
Luckily, Athens got to partake in what I've heard people calling "Goosapalooza." On February 12, Ohio University professor Phil Cantino reported 8 white geese on the western side of Athens near the Hocking River. These 8 white geese turned out to be Ross's Geese, and they continued hanging out for several days. Yesterday, on Feb. 15, a group of Ohio University students (including myself) went to see the individuals. It wasn't hard; we drove past a large group of Canada Geese hanging out at the Athens County Fairgrounds, and sure enough the 8 Ross's Geese were mixed in with the group of 150 or so Canada Geese.

Ross's Geese in Athens
The diminutive Ross's Goose is one of my favorite birds. As I mentioned previously, they are quite rare in Ohio, but they aren't globally rare, however. Their rarity in Ohio stems from their migration routes. The Ross's Goose breeds in northern Canada and overwinters in two distinct locations - California and the southern Great Plains. The populations which overwinter in the southern Great Plains migrate using the Central Flyway, which is pretty much 2 states west of Ohio. Since they utilize a migration flyway which doesn't come through Ohio, they don't really come through Ohio either. Occasionally something, whether it be a storm, individual mistake, etc., will cause one or a few individuals to veer off course and end up in places like Ohio. In the case of this giant flight into Ohio, weather is probably to blame.

Snow Goose Ross's Goose comparison
Photo taken in Fairfield County, Ohio, back in December 2015. The Snow Goose is in the back, while the Ross's Goose is in front of the Snow Goose.
As you might have seen, I had a post on both Ross's Geese and Snow Geese back in December (which you can read at this link). The Snow Goose and the Ross's Goose superficially look the same, but there are a few differences to note. I'll use a nice comparison photo from the Fairfield County ones I chased back in December. In the photo above, the Snow Goose is the white goose in the back, while the Ross's Goose is the white goose in the front. First, take note of the black wingtips in both; this shows that the goose is either a Snow or Ross's goose, and not just a white domestic goose, which will lack any black in the wings. Now, how do you tell the difference between a Snow Goose and a Ross's? Essentially, a Ross's Goose is a miniature, duck-sized version of a Snow Goose. Size, however, can be deceiving. Another feature that can help, but can also be deceiving, is neck size; a Ross's Goose typically has a very short, stubby neck, while a Snow Goose typically has a much longer neck. However, this can be dependent on how the goose is holding its neck and it isn't a good feature to solely base an identification on. The best field mark to separate the two species is the bill. With a Snow Goose, the bill will be large and pretty long. The bill will also have a distinctive dark "mustache." A Ross's Goose will have a much smaller and more dainty bill, and it will lack that dark "mustache."

Ross's Goose Ohio
In the case of the flock of 8 white geese this time around, they were all tiny, short-necked geese with dainty bills. This identifies them all as Ross's Geese. This was pretty exciting; the Ross's Goose was one of the last rare goose species which I hadn't yet seen in Athens! When rare geese do show up in Ohio, it's typically in the northwestern part of Ohio or along Lake Erie. Southeastern Ohio isn't typically a hotspot for rare waterfowl. However, the past 2 winters have brought an array of rare geese, with Greater White-Fronted Geese and Cackling Geese and Snow Geese. Now I can add Ross's Geese to the list of interesting Hocking River visitors!

If you live in Ohio, keep your eyes out for the rest of the week for any unusual geese! You never know what you might find!