I went looking for Snow Geese in the Champlain Valley the other day with one simple goal– find the flocks of Snow Geese that were staging there on their way south and search them for a Ross’s Goose. I started at Point AuRoche State Park where I went to the beach and let Wren run around the large open field while I scoped through the five or six hundred or so Snow Geese gathered along the beach. There were also a good number of Ring-billed Gulls there.
I picked through the Snow Geese looking for the very similar but smaller Ross’s. Finding a Ross’s is an ornithological Where’s Waldo, but I scanned through the Snow Goose ranks looking for the smaller bird with a shorter neck, more triangular bill, and rounder head – all subtle characteristics in a sea of white birds. I found none. But the geese were close and the light was pretty good, so it was fairly easy to pick my way through the relatively small flock. After all, the geese were very cooperative and didn’t mind me – or Wren for that matter – except when she wanted to get a drink of water from the lake. Then they moved offshore a short distance.
I was about to take a walk and check out the birds which were undoubtedly assembled down the trail on Treadwell Bay, when a few flocks of Snow Geese flew in and added to the number on the beach. And I immediately picked out a Ross’s Goose in the air in one of the flocks – obvious on the wing by its relatively shorter neck. The bird tucked into the flock on the ground and I scanned through them and found it again. I started taking photos, the composition of which changed constantly as the birds moved, and I showed the Ross’s to a couple who had just returned from Treadwell Bay. They confirmed that the Snow Goose flock there was several times the size of the flock on the beach.
After the beach flock had been briefly spooked by a dog (not Wren) and began to resettle, I looked through them to relocate the Ross’s Goose. And then I noticed there were actually two Ross’s. In fact they were quite close together as is often the case in such situations when one species is associating with another which greatly outnumbers it. Excited by this I took a few more photos before the flock went airborne evidently in response to the flight of the large flock on Treadwell Bay. They were settling back on the water when another visitor told me that he estimated there were at least 15 thousand Snow Geese further up the road near Monty Bay and I took the flight of my small flock as my cue to head up there to check it out.
As I drove the couple miles north, line after line of Snow Geese filled the skies heading into the fields to feed. There were thousands of birds. I arrived just north of Gilbert Brook Marina and found that the rumored flock may have been an underestimate. It was difficult to hazard an accurate guess at their dizzying numbers. Snow Geese carpeted the water of the bay right along the road and I pulled over to admire the spectacle. And one string after another was lifting off the water and heading inland to the fields. Many thousands of them were already settling to feed in the field directly across the street from the lake. I also spotted about 20 Horned Larks in the field as well.
I stepped out of my car and the geese nearest the road took flight. Hundreds of them. I then set to work with the scope and quickly found a third Ross’s Goose. This time the bird was an immature. And during the entire time, skein after skein of geese passed overhead, slowly emptying the water. Lines of geese intersected and parted - some going one way and some going in another. Why they didn’t all go in the same direction is difficult to say, but they didn’t seem to vacillate long on their decision. In one flock I had a glimpse of what might have been a fourth Ross’s, but it was instantly hidden in the chaos of the honking throng and I never saw it again.
I stood and took photos of the lines of geese, in awe of the staggering numbers as they created a blizzard in the field as they dropped to feed. As they dipped towards the horizon their white plumage reflected the colors of the setting sun and sky.
Finally, as the flock on the lake was reduced to perhaps 1200 birds, I headed back to Point AuRoche State Park and I saw that bay too was empty of geese. I had seen them in a remote field as I drove back to the park and as I stood quietly I could hear the din of the flock filling the cold evening shadows in the distance. As I prepared to drive home, the calls grew louder and several thousand Snow Geese and Canada Geese flew against the spectrum of the sunset and landed back on Treadwell Bay, presumably for the night.