Northwest Nature Log 
A different goose among the flock

The greater white-fronted goose, unusual in our area, was recently spotted among the common Canada geese in our area.

Early one misty morning this week I overheard the quiet talk of geese on the slope near the water. A local small flock of about a dozen Canada geese have stayed around all summer, but after their fluffy gray babies grew large enough, they relocated to bigger, safer water in Loomis Lake proper.

Now, here they were, all full grown, the youngsters looking just like the parent geese. An occasional muttered grunt or yelp passed for conversation in this grazing flock, all quite dapper in fall feathering.

As the morning light improved I picked out a smaller, lighter-colored member of the flock. It was a greater white-fronted goose. These geese aren’t as common as Canadas, but with some effort they can be found this time of year.

This is another bird of the very far north. One population spends summer off the west coast of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. Another population stays in the general area of the Great Lakes in the U.S. The western group makes their way south in fall, mainly to the west coast of Mexico, although some travel across to the Gulf coast states to join their eastern counterparts for the winter.

I’ve heard my father call these geese “speckle-bellies.” I think this is a common name among hunters. Their generous lower breast and belly area sport a lovely dense blend of pale brown, darker brown and black feathers that form into rough, uneven stripes, which look like speckles from a distance. The “white-fronted” is rather misleading as it does not refer to the breast but to the large patch of white just above the pink-orange bill. A handsome bird overall.

When these birds first arrive in the far north all set to breed and nest, there is still snow on the ground. The geese carefully construct a ground nest of lichen and grasses, then line it with the softest down plucked from their bodies. They may find discarded molt feathers from ptarmigans to add to the mix. But even with all the care provided, spring melt may flood nests and hungry predators like foxes may find and destroy them. The geese will rebuild and try again, but usually the second or even third clutch of eggs will be progressively smaller.

It’s easy to glance out the window and see a few birds on the grass. Most of those birds have undergone some big challenges to just get here: that they actually survived the gauntlet of weather and predation is pretty admirable.

The Canadas have accepted their flock mate. He is jostled back and forth, crowding in to good clumps of grass with the rest. He’s a different size and color, but he’s still a goose and that seems to be all that’s important.

The small, hardy crew is huddled on the lee side of the water during this massive rain, keeping each other warm, muttering quietly, providing companionship and waiting out the storm.

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