Light Geese

The Snow Goose need not bathe to make itself white. Neither need you do anything but be yourself.

~Lao Tzu

On one of my first Christmas Bird Counts over 25 years ago, at what was then Pungo National Wildlife Refuge (now the expanded Pocosin Lakes NWR),  I ran into a well-known birder who was scoping a huge flock of Snow Geese. He asked if I had seen the Ross’s Geese mixed in with the thousands of Snow Geese. I had heard of Ross’s Geese, but never seen one. The flock suddenly erupted, and as the mass of birds circled us, he exclaimed, “There…there they are, three of them”.

Pocosin Arts images-117

Blast off at Pungo (click photos to enlarge)

I looked, but really couldn’t see a different bird in the flapping sea of white and black wings. That was my introduction to the subtleties of goose identification. Together, Snow Geese and Ross’s Geese are often referred to as light geese. Light goose populations are increasing nationwide and Snow Geese are now believed to be one of the most abundant waterfowl in the continental U.S. My recent trip to Bosque del Apache in New Mexico provided great opportunities for observation and comparison. In NC, if you see even a single Ross’s Goose mixed with thousands of Snow Geese, it is a good day (most Ross’s Geese overwinter in California and other western states). At Bosque, the Ross’s Geese are much more common, with small flocks easily spotted along the edges of the large flocks of Snow Geese.

Landing blue goose

Intermediate dark-morph Snow Goose landing amongst light-morphs

Snow Geese are dimorphic, meaning they occur in two color morphs – one light, and one dark. Until 1973, the two were considered separate species. The field guide I learned to bird with listed the dark-morph as the Blue Goose. The dark-morph is estimated to make up less than 5% of the Snow Goose population that winters here in NC.

Landing Snow Goose blue sky

Landing light-morph Snow Goose

Adult light-morphs are white with black primaries, which appear as black wing tips when seen from below.

Landing blue goose against sky

Landing dark-morph Snow Goose

Adult dark-morph Snow Geese have dark gray-brown bodies with white heads and upper necks. A range of intermediate color forms occurs between the light and dark morphs.

Landing immature blue goose

Immature Snow Goose

Immature birds of both morphs are grayer overall.

Adult Snow Goose

Adult light-morph Snow Goose showing black “lips” and pink feet

Both color morphs have a distinctive black “grin patch”, or “lip line” on their bills. They also have pink legs and feet.

Ross's Goose

Ross’s Goose

An adult Ross’s Goose looks like a miniature Snow Goose (a little more than half the size of an adult Snow Goose). Other distinguishing features to separate them from Snow Geese are the lack of the prominent black “lip line” on the shorter, stubbier bill, and a more rounded head. They also have a grayish/bluish base on their upper mandible with caruncles (warty bumps) developing with age. The back edge of the bill-feather line on a Ross’s Goose is straight, whereas that on a Snow Goose, is curved. They also have a more rapid wing beat and a higher pitched call than Snow Geese. Dark-morphs are rare in Ross’s Geese. Immature Ross’s Geese are grayish. Hybrids do occur, with the best distinguishing features being an intermediate size, bill length, and a slight curvature to the back of the bill line.

Light goose comparison

Comparison of Ross’s Goose (right foreground) and Snow Goose

Snow Goose and Ross's Goose

Snow Goose (foreground) compared to Ross’s Goose

The comparison is best seen when the two species are next to one another. They are also easy to tell apart if they occur in the same line of a flying group of light geese, with the noticeable size difference being easy to spot with practice.

Goose observation pond along South Loop

Pond along South Loop

On the last afternoon, a drive along the south loop at Bosque put me in close proximity to several hundred light geese lounging, bathing, and conversing. The birds settled into a routine and, for about an hour, a small group of us sat and watched as the geese went about their business.

Sleeping goose 1

Snow Goose napping with one eye on me

Sleeping snow goose 1

Snow Goose slowly spinning in a circle as it naps

Many of the birds rested, head tucked into their back feathers. They seemed to keep tabs on me with one open eye even as they “slept”. Interestingly, several of the napping birds would slowly rotate in a tight circle, perhaps as a way to survey the scene as they rested.

snow goose bathing  2

Snow Goose bathing sequence

snow goose bathing 1

Snow Goose bathing

snow goose bathing  3

Snow Goose bathing

When not resting, the birds in this flock were preening, stretching, bathing, and discussing unknown subjects with their neighbors. Several bathing styles were evident varying between awkward splashing to vigorous head dipping. One additional method was new to me – the bathing flip. It involves a head dunk that turns into a complete body flip in the water accompanied by some vigorous splashing. The short video below includes a few examples (see if you can distinguish the Snow Geese from the Ross’s Geese swimming about)…

snow goose wing flap start

snow goose wing flap 4

Often, the bathing sequence concludes with a prominent wing flap where the bird rises up on the water surface and flaps its wings a couple of times before settling back down to resume preening or simply rest.

More geese joined our group from time to time in flocks varying in size from a five or ten to larger flocks of fifty or more. And, since it was a small pond, we observers all had front row seats to some beautiful landings.

Landing blue gooe 1

Dark-morph Snow Goose

landing pair of Snow Geese

Pair of Snow Geese

Landing Snow Goose from below

Snow Goose coming in from straight above

Landing Snow Goose head-on 2

Head-on view of Snow Goose

Landing Ross's Goose 1

Ross’s Goose

Landing Snow Goose splash-down side view

Snow Goose splash-down

After about an hour, something changed and the flock’s behavior and calling became more fidgety.

Mixed flock of light geese taking flight

Mixed flock of light geese taking flight

Soon, a few birds took off – at first groups of ten to twenty, then a few more, until, finally, about half the remaining flock lifted off and flew directly over our heads. That was followed shortly by the lift-off of the remaining geese and the once noisy pond was empty. Most of the birds flew out into an adjoining cornfield and started to feed.  Less than an hour later, most will have flown off to their evening roost in some shallow water found throughout this section of the refuge, safe from most predators.

Sunrise at the Flight Deck

Such is the daily routine of the light goose brigade: rise before sun up and dazzle the onlookers; move out to another shallow roosting spot for perhaps an hour, then gradually fly off to fields for awhile; fly back to a pond, then back to a field, and so on, until late in the day when they return to roost together in huge flocks to squabble and jostle the night away; start the whole thing all over again the next morning. I marvel at how these birds manage their energy budget since they never seem to truly rest (perhaps at night?) and are always on edge, waiting for some unseen cue to send them skyward.

But having spent some quality time with them, I now have a better appreciation of their beauty, and of how to more easily distinguish between the species. Raucous or not, they are still magical to see and hear as they fill the sky at Bosque or here at home in North Carolina.

Snow geese landing silhouettes

Snow Geese landing in dawn’s light


Wherever there are birds, there is hope.

~Mehmet Murat ildan

Snow Geese at Crane Pond

Snow Geese taking flight at Bosque del Apache (click on photos to enlarge)

Bosque – say that to any birder or wildlife photographer, and they immediately know of what you speak. There is only one place that comes to mind – Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. It has been on my bucket list since I first saw images of the birds there more than 20 years ago. And just before Christmas I was there…and it did not disappoint.

Bosque del Apache is Spanish for “woods of the Apache”, referring to a time when Spanish explorers would be surprised by Apaches coming out of the forests of Cottonwood trees growing along the Rio Grande River. The refuge was created in 1939 to preserve important wintering habitats along the river for waterfowl and a dwindling Sandhill Crane population. Today, it is widely considered one of the finest wildlife viewing areas in the world, especially for the thousands of waterfowl and cranes that winter here.

High desert

High desert habitat in the area near Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

The drive down from Albuquerque yielded no clue to the abundance to come – it is high desert covered in shrubs with odd-sounding names like Creosote Bush and Screwbean Mesquite.  As you near the refuge, trees begin to appear –  beautiful, majestic trunks of Cottonwoods. The flat landscape changes dramatically as you near the river, the true lifeblood of the 57,000+ acre refuge.

Northern Pintail on morning ice

Northern Pintail on morning ice

But there were birds to see, so after a quick stop at the visitor center (staffed by a cadre of helpful volunteers) time was spent watching a large flock of Northern Pintails (probably the most abundant duck seen) in a pool bordered by ice.

The sky was soon full of birds, mainly Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes, flying in from the fields to roost for the evening. Staff told me the cranes were coming into some pools along the main road known as the Crane Ponds, so that is where I wanted to be as the sun set.

Crane Pond at sunset

Crane Ponds at sunset the first evening in Bosque

The sky was clear, not a cloud in sight. Cranes drifted into the ponds for about an hour as the sun set behind the Chupadera Mountains. Their ancient calls filled the air and a group of us stood in silence (except for the camera shutters:) as the pond filled with the stately forms. Quite an introduction to Bosque.

Sunrise at the Flight Deck vertical

Sunrise at the Flight Deck

Cranes dropping into pond at sunset

Cranes dropping into pond at sunset

The next few days were a sequence of incredible sunrises and sunsets, with the sights and sounds of thousands of flying and calling birds filling the skies.

Sunrise from Flight Deck with Snow Geese in air

Sunrise from Flight Deck with Snow Geese in flight

Last sunset

Last sunset at Bosque

The final day brought this sky painting sequence to a glorious finale – a lingering sunrise at the area known as The Flight Deck and a slow starting sunset at the Crane Ponds that turned into one of the most intense fire-laden skies I have ever seen.

Sandhill Crane over marsh

Sandhill Crane lifting off over marsh

Early morning on Crane Pond

Early morning on Crane Ponds

I learned I have a compulsion to photograph birds in flight and ended up with a total of over 8000 images over the five days of shooting. On the return flight I deleted over 1000 and quickly trashed another few hundred once I started reviewing at home. How many images of flying cranes and crowded scenes of birds on the water do you need?

Snow Geese flock on Crane Pondpg

Snow Geese flock on Crane Ponds

Snow geese are raucous, always busy and noisy, kind of a rough crowd in the bird world, or so it seems at first glance (I actually got hit 6 times by snow goose “bombs” as they blasted off over my head one afternoon).

Cranes tend to be more elegant with a call that is one of the most memorable utterances in the bird world. They stand an impressive 4.5-5 feet in height and are stately in their flight, dances, and strides. To offset that noble air, they sometimes do border on the comical with some of their jumps and in a behavior appropriately labeled the intend-to-fly. I called it “the lean”.

Crane probing dirt mound

Crane jumping on and probing dirt mound

The lean

Cranes often lean in the direction of flight prior to take-off

Two Cranes taking off

Cranes running for take-off

Prior to take-off, cranes tend to lean in the direction of their impending flight. It gets funny when several adjacent birds all start to lean, and then hold that position for what seems like an unnecessary length of time before one bird will finally start the run-and-flap sequence that leads to lift-off.

Snow Geese with mountains

Snow Geese flying between feeding areas mid-day

Sandhill Crne portrait

Sandhill Crane portrait

The middle of the day has notoriously harsh light, but is still a great time to search the refuge for other species or to watch interesting behaviors of the stars, the Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes.

When you take time to look elsewhere there is even more to see at Bosque. One of the biggest surprises was one morning when three large bull Elk came out from the shrub thickets, paused, and turned back and disappeared while my mouth fell open and my camera lay untouched on the seat.

Mule Deer

Mule Deer

Other mammals spotted during the stay included Coyotes, Desert Cottontails, Collared Peccaries, a Rock Squirrel, and the very common Mule Deer.

Mountain Lion signage

Mountain Lion signage – there have been sightings at Bosque

Unfortunately, I once again failed to add one particularly elusive mammal to my life list but did get some hope from these scattered signs.

American Kestrel

American Kestrel

Once you get past the masses of geese and cranes, there are plenty of other birds to see. My last post covered one of the several Great Horned Owls seen, but several other raptor species patrolled the skies including Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks (many of which are various dark color morphs), Northern Harriers, Cooper’s Hawks, and American Kestrels.

Greater Roadruner

Greater Roadrunner

Other species of note included a few lifers for me – Gambel’s Quail, Say’s Phoebe, Lesser Goldfinch, and a much sought-after species observed late in the trip – a couple of Greater Roadrunners. The first Roadrunner was a real skulker alongside a roadway and the second was noticed because of an unusual behavior. Roadrunners fluff up their feathers as they turn their back toward the sun to soak up warmth – they look like a dark gray puffball with a brown neck as they sit in the open for up to several minutes.

Crane Pond morning

Snow Geese at Crane Ponds with mountains as a backdrop

But Bosque is about the spectacle of thousands of birds in a stunning setting. There’s a feeling I get when I have these experiences that I have trouble putting into words. It’s a connection to the larger world, to something much bigger than me. A calmness comes over me. It is powerful, peaceful, and it gives me hope…hope for better things, hope for a world more in tune with natural cycles and events. It also always makes me thankful for those people that had the foresight to set these areas aside as protected lands, and to the people that have been, and are now, the caretakers of these public treasures.

A trip to Bosque is a dream come true for any naturalist or photographer. But while the numbers of the different species on the refuge are impressive (that week according to volunteers – 92,000 ducks, 46,000 Snow Geese, 8,900 Sandhill Cranes, 9 eagles), it did remind me of some special places back home – Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges. And I think I will appreciate them even more now – while a Sandhill Crane is a rare sighting in NC, we do have more Snow Geese (estimated 85,000 last year at Pocosin Lakes alone), tens of thousands of ducks and Tundra Swans, many more eagles, and all those Black Bears I find so fascinating. I hope that one day the funding may exist to allow some additional development of visitor services facilities at our refuges, but for now, I am looking forward to my next trip down east in the next few days. I’ll be sure to pause and reflect how lucky we are to have these special places here in NC where we can be inspired by the spectacle of abundant wildlife.

A national wildlife restoration program is based on the premise that wildlife is not only worth our efforts to restore it, but that its restoration is absolutely and vitally essential to the welfare of our citizens.
~Jay Norwood (“Ding”) Darling, former Chief of the U.S. Biological Survey

I’ll leave you with some more images of the abundance and beauty at Bosque…

Crane calling 1

Sandhill Crane calling as it takes off

Cranes flying across moon

Cranes flying across rising full moon

Cranes flying in fiery sunset

Cranes flying into Crane Ponds in fiery sunset

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk

Moon on crane pond

Crane silhouettes in setting full moon at dawn

People watching Snow Geese

Photographers at Crane Ponds

Sandhill Crane takes flight 1

Sandhill Crane takes flight

Say's Phoebe 1

Say’s Phoebe

Crane group

Sandhill Cranes at sunset

Three cranes in flight

Sandhill Cranes flying out to feed in nearby fields

Two Cranes wading in fiery light

Sandhill Cranes settling in for the night

No Mere Bird

When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men. Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.

~Aldo Leopold

Cranes in horizontal line at sunset

Sandhill Cranes landing at sunset in Crane Ponds at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, NM (click photo to enlarge)

A short video clip with cranes calling at sunset at Bosque del Apache.

The Shadow

I rejoice that there are owls…

~Henry David Thoreau

I just returned from a very special place – Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. I came away with several thousand images, mostly of Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes, the “stars” of Bosque. But in the predawn light and in the twilight after sunset each day, I looked for something special in a certain area along the road. It was a  silhouette, a powerful shadow of the night sky – a Great Horned Owl.

Great Horned Owl at sunrise

Great Horned Owl at sunrise (click photos to enlarge)

Over five days, I probably saw the owl five or six times, all within a quarter mile stretch of road inside the refuge. It was always perched on a prominent object, surveying its domain, looking and listening for a potential meal amongst the grasses and shrubs. There are relatively few trees here so I imagine the owl may have a nest site in one of the groves of Cottownwoods near the highway. The image above was taken on the first morning in the refuge, a good omen I thought.

Great Horned Owl by the light of a full moon

Great Horned Owl by the light of a full moon

One of the many highlights of the trip was the full moon rising with cranes flying into one of the ponds along the road near the owl’s territory. As I drove out that night, there was the owl, sitting in the bare branches of a small tree along the railroad tracks. As I had stayed with the cranes until the moon was well up off the horizon, it was tough to get into position for a photo of the owl against the moon. I took a few images of it in the glow of the full moon before tying to get closer.

Great Horned Owl silhouette against full moon

Great Horned Owl silhouette against full moon

I now know my body wasn’t designed to crouch so low while messing with a camera and tripod trying to frame an owl against a brightening moon. But, the owl did not seem to mind, and I managed a few shots before it glided down on some unsuspecting rodent and then disappeared into the trees.

A shadow can a powerful thing, and this one gave me an experience I will not forget.