Pink-footed what?

Wed, 01/11/2017 - 10:45am

Last Saturday, we joined throngs of other birders who headed over to Rockland to look for some rare birds. Two pink-footed geese had been spotted a week or so before and had been reported to be quite easy to see.

When we told our 14-year-old son about the plans and the bird we would be looking for, he first assumed we were pulling his leg because of the bird’s name. It is true that if one were trying to come up with a fake bird name to poke fun at birders, “pink-footed goose” would be a good candidate. But indeed a pink-footed goose is a real bird, and its pink feet distinguish it from its closest relative, the bean goose, which has orange legs.

Pink-footed geese historically at the global level had quite a small population, numbering around 20,000-30,000 birds in the 1930s and with a breeding range restricted to eastern Greenland, Iceland, and Norway’s Svalbard Islands. The population breeding in Greenland and Iceland is now the largest population and winters in Scotland and in northern and eastern England, while the smaller Svalbard population winters in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. Over the last few decades, pink-footed goose populations have exploded, with wintering numbers in Britain estimated at 360,000 and an additional 60,000 in mainland Europe.

Likely as a consequence of these greater numbers and perhaps some expansion of the breeding range over the last 20 years, small but increasing numbers of pink-footed geese have been heading south on this side of the Atlantic and ending up in eastern Canada and the northeastern U.S. Here in Maine there have been a few of these birds, but we had not yet seen one so we were excited to know that there were two hanging out less than an hour’s drive away.

The two pink-footed geese had been consorting with a flock of Canada geese and a single snow goose that fed on the grass of the local elementary school ball fields. We knew we were in the right place when we saw five cars already there, with a small crowd of birders scanning the field with binoculars and telescopes. Even more impressive, as we stepped out of the car a birder came rushing by us toward his car, passing on the breathless message that the birds had just been rediscovered a quarter mile up the road behind a factory building. It was amazing how quickly the cars in the parking lot near the school became a caravan heading up the road, ours among them!

There was another cluster of cars behind the factory and the flock of geese were readily apparent in the field below, allowing for beautiful views in the telescope and binoculars despite the frigid temperatures. And, as advertised, they did have pink legs! Our son became a believer after studying them for a few minutes through the scope.

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of the Birder’s Conservation Handbook. His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the book, Maine’s Favorite Birds.