Thursday, December 20, 2012

Snow Goose, at cement plant

As we have for quite a few years now, Dr. Bernie Master and myself headed afield last Sunday to scour our turf for the Columbus Christmas Bird Count. This annual foray takes us into some of Columbus, Ohio's most industrial terrain. The view above is from the long drive back to the Columbus Impound Lot, where illegal parkers and other motorized mischief-makers have their vehicles towed. The impound lot was recently moved to this site, and we like it because we can now get access to this huge stand of Giant Reed, Phragmites australis, and other wetland plants. We found Swamp Sparrows in there, and last year a Rough-legged Hawk was present - a very hard bird to find on this count.

Not far away is the vast grounds of the Anderson Cement Plant, and the Anderson folks always kindly allow us access. While this site looks rather bleak, we routinely find interesting birds here. There are some quarries with fowl, and the mighty Scioto River flows past. We fully expect to someday find a Northern Wheatear in the extensive barren gravelly waste grounds such as above, but have decided not to hold our breath waiting to discover Ohio's 4th record of that Mega.

If you read this blog very often, you know that I am rather spoiled when it comes to field expeditions. A great many of my trips are to fairly pristine habitats which are often rare and unusual places filled with interesting flora and fauna. I don't rue my time spent in urban jungles, though. It's always interesting to see how birds adapt to highly modified landscapes. In fact, there is a very cool bird in this photo. Just beyond that yellow excavator in the distance loafed a flock of Canada Geese, the first that we had seen on this day. It's always worthwhile to make more than a cursory investigation of such flocks, as rarer geese such as Cackling Goose or Greater White-fronted Goose have a penchant for hanging with their chin-strapped brethren.

Sure enough, it was BINGO! time! A white blob stood out like a sore thumb, and our optics quickly revealed it to be a Snow Goose, Chen caerulescens, which is a dandy bird for the Columbus Christmas Bird Count. The animal did not seem put off in the least by its surroundings of heavy equipment, slag piles, and nearby railroad tracks, even though such haunts are a far cry from the untrammeled wilds of the Arctic tundra where it was spawned.

The sooty dusting on its crown, nape, and back and dark bill and legs reveal this to be a juvenile Snow Goose, pipped from the egg just this summer. Of course, it is a "Snow" Snow Goose, or the white morph of this strongly dimorphic species. The other form is known as the "Blue Goose", and it is quite different indeed. Blues are mostly slaty-brown with a white head - they look like a completely different species. And indeed, until 1983 they were considered separate species.

NOTE: The forms of the Snow Goose are often referred to as "phases"; i.e. "I saw a blue phase Snow Goose". The definition of phase: a particular appearance or state in a regularly recurring cycle of changes. A Snow Goose does not change forms, however - it is either blue or white and will remain that way throughout its life. Stable forms such as in this species, or the Rough-legged Hawk, are correctly termed "morphs". Morph means: "Each of several variant forms of an animal or plant."

Ohio lies between major flyways for the Snow Goose and we don't get very many. Singles or small flocks are the rule, with occasional exceptions. The exception of all exceptions occurred on October 25, 1952 in Mahoning County. On that date, stunned observers tallied massive flocks totalling some 150,000 birds within a two hour period.

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4 comments:

Jane Sorensen said...

I read "The Snow Geese" by William Fiennes in 2010, and I thought that the blue morph and white morph were phases of plumage that they went through.

I did not see my first snow geese until the beginning of November, when on my way to Ottawa, the sky overhead filled with about 2,000 of them in the late afternoon. I suspected with that many they were snow geese, and as we passed and could then see the sun reflecting back their colours, I added a new bird to my life list.

Jim McCormac said...

Hi Jane, your comment came through just fine.The word verification spam filter is a pain, but without it I would be deluged by junk messages.

I haven't read Fiennes' book, but the color forms of Snow Geese are stable, not transitory phases. Congrats on seeing such a big flock! Ottawa and vicinity is the best place in Ohio to see big numbers of this species.

Sharkbytes said...

The snow geese fly over here most every year. I can tell they are up there because they sound so different, but I have yet to see one on the ground here. I've never seen an odd goose with the Canadas.

Anonymous said...

Judging by her spelling of "colour" I'm guessing she meant Ottawa, Ontario
Brian