A Pink-footed Goose!
I had been planning to check out the goose phenomenon at the Malone Memorial Recreation Park for a few weeks, so when news came that someone had found a Pink-footed Goose (a European species and the first record that I know of for this species in the entire North Country), hidden within the large numbers of Canada and Snow Geese which congregate there, I knew it was time to go.
The day was cold - our coldest so far this fall - as I readied myself and drove north through snow-covered conifers to Malone. But the sky was also bright with the sun poking through the clouds - I would have nice light on the birds. But when I arrived at the park between 10:30 and 11:00 a.m., there were only a couple groups of Canada Geese on the water, their numbers salted with half a dozen Snows. The birds were likely still out feeding in the fields from the night - and perhaps the cold night with snow had forced them to forage longer. I picked through the geese assembled, and finding nothing of note, I drove a loop around the farm fields on the east side of Malone, hoping to find geese feeding in the fields.
In doing so, I found a large number of Canada Geese at Lamica Lake as well as a few Hooded Mergansers and Common Mergansers, but there was no sign of any rare species - and the Pink-footed Goose had been associating with the Snow Geese (rather than Canada Geese) anyway. I also spotted a Bald Eagle on my loop, but I found little else of note and I returned to the Rec Park to see if the geese had returned. I was in luck - as I drove toward the park I could see them swirling in the air above.
The Goose Spectacle at the Rec Park
The geese were skittish and unsure about landing when I arrived, and a woman there said they had been on the water but a Bald Eagle had sent them skyward. So I waited patiently for them to calm down, scanning through the flock in the air and I almost immediately pulled out the Pink-footed Goose by its silvery-gray tail barred with white. I also noted a Greater White-fronted Goose on the wing - something which had not been noted previously. Once the geese settled I began to pick through them, and the Pink-footed obliged by swimming toward the front of the flock where I could take some photos. It alternated between sitting, dozing, and occasionally chasing and - sorry, this has to be said - goosing the neighboring Snow Geese. Apparently it likes to be in charge.
As I scanned through the flock which was strewn across the water, I realized that there were two Greater White-fronted Geese - both juvenile birds - and both sticking together on the back side of the flock where they were difficult to photograph. I continued to sort through the honking throng - other folks had found both Ross's Goose and Cackling Goose the previous day. I soon found a Ross's Goose - this one another juvenile bird (on the day before folks had found an adult).
The cold wind was beginning to chill me as I stood there and chatted with other birders who had made the trip for the goose, but rather than walk along the shoreline to help me warm up and to look for a different angle from which to view the pond, I stayed where the Pink-footed Goose was most easily observed so I could take more photos of it. At one point as I snapped a few photos, I realized that a Cackling Goose had popped into the frame, photobombing my shots! It was my sixth goose species and I hadn't moved from my spot!
Raptors in the Farm Fields
Eventually the entire flock shifted further from shore, making photos more distant, and my cold toes and hungry belly compelled me to find warmth and food in the car. So I reluctantly traded my post for my seat in the car and took a second spin through the farm fields (this time on the roads west of Malone) in search of raptors as I ate and warmed up. The geese were beginning to get a bit restless anyway, and not long after I left, I could see them on the horizon toward the Rec Park. They were clearly leaving the pond. Many of them came and settled in the fields west of town where I looked through a few of the flocks, but I re-found none of the rarities. But I did find lots of raptors in the fields - including multiple Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, and Northern Harriers, and I found a flock of Horned Larks which numbered a few hundred.
As the sun took its goodbye bow on the day and dipped below the horizon with a splendid display of color, I turned toward home. The following day people found the same six goose species at the Rec Park pond, but the crazy news came from Lake Champlain where a second Pink-footed Goose had been found! Birders were seeing both birds simultaneously - it sounded as if someone had left the doors open to their European waterfowl aviary.
A Return Trip
This time of year is always good for unusual species of goose, but two Pink-footed Geese in the region is outstanding, and I returned to the Malone Rec Park, the following day - this time leading a birding trip. Our luck was different on this day. The cold nights had iced over most of the pond, and the numbers of geese had dropped considerably - they either had found open water elsewhere (perhaps in the Champlain Valley) or the weather had convinced them to move south.
Despite this, we immediately found the two Greater White-fronted Geese, and later found both Ross's and Cackling, but the Pink-footed eluded us. The bird may not have left the region just yet - and we may have to try for the one on Lake Champlain at some point soon. Not only that, a day with five species of goose is still excellent, and as the geese began to leave the pond for the fields, so did we, ending our day with Rough-legged Hawks, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, a Bald Eagle, and a Merlin.