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The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

Wing'd XXXVII: Greater White-fronted Goose

Posted by | April 5, 2017 | Filed under: Observations

Greater white-fronted goose is the latest entry on the Wells Reserve bird checklist. It's the first addition since last summer's king rail and the first new goose since the barnacle five years ago.

Greater White-fronted Goose illustration adapted from public domain image from Wikimedia Commons
Greater White-fronted Goose illustration adapted from public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

The goose was first reported on March 20 by Fletcher Missud, a regular here, who submitted the sighting to eBird. Josh Fecteau was quick to follow up and David Doubleday got to the bird before sunset.

Josh posted the rarity to maine-birds on Monday night, so I was out first thing Tuesday. Several more hopefuls stopped by over the next couple of days, with the last eBird report being Nathan Hall's: "Afternoon shimmer made the id difficult but the orange legs of this bird gave it away." I never saw the legs. It took patience to see the bird at all.

A Short Morning Walk

When I approached the overlook on that cool and bright Tuesday morning, I flushed about 30 geese and a familiar light panic overtook me. I tracked the departing birds into the distance without finding one of those things that was not like the others, so I was buoyed at least for the moment. I set about scanning the whole marsh and eventually discovered a group of Canadas grazing on matted grass behind the Crescent Surf Beach foredune. They got my full attention.

A quick pass with the bins gave me a monospecific tally of 37, most of them foraging with their heads down. I planted my scope and went back over the crowd once, twice, again, and again. Still nobody new.

Give it time, I told myself, it's only been a few minutes. Finally, with time growing short and my expectations sagging low, it was right there, orange beak bright against a field of brown-backed Canadas. "There you are."

The moment didn't linger. I managed a rapid survey of field marks, especially those black side splotches, and assessed its size next to its big cousins. Then the bird slipped out of sight; it disappeared.

How Rare Is It?

Nine reports to eBird, some with photos, ensured this was no mirage. The 72-hour layover was for real. But how unexpected was this goose?

Greater white-fronted geese visit Maine regularly, but York County eBird records are limited to two individuals in Saco in 2012 and one in the Berwicks in 2013. Various spots in coastal Cumberland County, other scattered locations in the southern half of the state, and a light cluster of hits in eastern Aroostook County paint an "uncommon" picture. It's definitely a "good bird," but the Maine Bird Records Committee does not label it "rare."

Where Did It Come From?

The orange beak on this white-front might signal it came from Greenland. Field guides often say Greenland "specklebellies" bear orange beaks while their North American counterparts — unusual east of the Mississippi — show pink ones. But Sibley cautions "an over-emphasis on bill color for ID has led to many dubious claims of Greenland birds," echoing concerns expressed by other authorities. And he's given the orange-pink color spectrum some serious study.

So even though Greenland geese seem to be increasing here in the east, I'll take David's advice and skip the guesswork about where this bird spent last summer. We'll never know.

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