A Walk on the Wild Side
Winter birds are back. Flocks of Green-winged Teal line up along the shallows and wait for the tide to bring life-giving sea-borne things. Intertidal areas are the richest in the world as creeks and rivers flow down to join the salt-water. The mix of nutrients made us on earth. According to evolution, something climbed out of the sea long ago and here we are.
While teal hang around the edge of things, geese feed in the meadow. Our own Dusky Canada Geese, occidentalis, returned from their nesting grounds in the muskeg in mid-July. Flocks of migrant geese joined them in late August/early September and, while many kept going, some stayed with the Duskys. It is their winter home. It’s interesting that not all the geese are the same, some are smaller with small bills, and some are larger with longer necks. And some arrive with what look like tin cans around their neck. These are neck-banded birds. It’s hard to say whether or not neck-bands are a good thing, but those who do the banding seem to believe that it works insofar as they know where the birds nested and where they winter over.
So, what are the geese of different sizes? Some of the small ones with a browner appearance are Cackling Geese. The small flocks that move together like so many sheep across a meadow, have silvery-grey backs and short necks are Aleutian Geese. Both kinds often have a narrow white neck ring.
Aleutians Geese were almost exterminated from the Aleutian Islands when, in 1750, fox hunters transplanted Arctic and red foxes to unoccupied islands to establish new fox populations so they could hunt them and sell their fur. By the 1930s about 190 islands had foxes where they never were before. Foxes are efficient predators and were deadly to the geese who had no predators prior to their arrival. Eggs and chicks were eaten, but worse, so were the nesting hens. This caused immediate repercussions as the chicks and eggs died that year and it also ended any future nesting within the female’s natural lifespan.
Then in 1967 the US government declared that Aleutian geese were an endangered species and developed a program to trap and remove the foxes. The goose population recovered almost immediately. They were removed from the list of endangered species in 2001. By the winter of 2007-2008, the population was about 114,000 birds. They are back from the brink of extinction and we watched a small flock strip seeds from the tall grasses beside Stewart Tower in the Sanctuary a few weeks ago. They were focused and would not be disturbed as they stocked up for their continued southward migration.
There are still a few Cackling Geese with the Duskys. They were all called Canada Geese at one time, now they’re a separate species. Cackling are dark brown, not silvery-grey like the Aleutians, but are about the same size. There’s a few here right now feeding with the islands geese, and the size difference is evident.
A Walk on the Wild Side