Counting Our Blessings

There are no seven wonders of the world in the eyes of a child. There are seven million.

~Walt Streightiff

We had a wonderful holiday break this past week, spending time with and enjoying both families. The past few days we discussed some of the varied rituals of the holidays – specific foods for the season, making cookies with family, watching certain shows, listening to Christmas music, and Christmas Eve Mass. I guess I have a few rituals myself, although they are quite different from most.

Tundra swans in field

The weather for much of our Christmas Bird Count was cold, gray, and wet (click photos to enlarge)

Yesterday was one of my favorites – the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count at Pungo. The count has been going on since I started it with my friend, Paris Trail, back in the mid 1980’s, and I have only missed a few in all those years. The count center is based at Pettigrew State Park and the standard 15-mile diameter circle encompasses all of the park (including 16,000+ acre Lake Phelps), acres of the surrounding farmland, and much of the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.  The weather turned out to be less than ideal with cloudy skies, various forms of precipitation, and temperatures hovering around 37 degrees most of the day. We drove the refuge roads for much of the morning as we were starting to question the sanity of our 4:30 a.m. departure from a warm bed back home. Though we ended up with fewer species than usual, we did share a few special moments with some of the usual suspects.

Tundra swans in field 1

A flock of tundra swans in a field along Pat’s Road at Pungo

Tundra swans in field crop

Apparently, there was a lot to discuss at the swan holiday gathering

On one of our circuits, we noticed several thousand tundra swans had gathered in the front fields to feed on waste corn and a nearby field of winter wheat sprouts. We pulled up, lowered the windows with rain sprinkling in, and took in the scene. Watching and listening to the swans somehow made it all worthwhile and reminded me of how much I love this place.

Snow geese landing on gray day

A large flock of snow geese landing to feed

Soon, scattered flocks of snow geese began to gather and circle the feeding swans. As the flocks coalesced into a huge swirl of black and white, we discussed the seeming inefficiency of snow goose behavior – circling a field for many minutes, using up precious energy, before finally settling down to feed. All the while, I was glassing the passing flock for the smaller cousins of snow geese, the Ross’s geese.

Injured snow goose

Snow goose profile showing longer beak with black “lip” line

It is fairly easy to spot a Ross’s goose on the edge of a flock of snow geese in a field – Ross’s geese are about 1/2 to 2/3 the size of all the other white birds and have a stubby bill that lacks the black “lips” of a snow goose. But I like to try to spot them in flight, which can be a bit more challenging. If the the two species are adjacent to one another, you can see the differences (even though Melissa thinks I am making all this up).

Comparison of Ross' and Snow Goose in flight

Can you spot the Ross’s geese in this photo?

Check out the photo above. There are two Ross’s geese mixed with 4.5 snow geese – remember, look for the smaller size and a short, stubby bill on the Ross’ geese. We ended the day with 7 Ross’s geese and about 30,000 snow geese (I’m sure there are a many more Ross’s geese on the refuge, but it can be tough to pick them out of the large flocks).

Yellow-rumped warbler

Yellow-rumped warblers were our constant companions in forested areas of the refuge

A few other species were quite abundant this year – American robins by the hundreds, mallards, killdeer, and yellow-rumped warblers. These winter warblers are tiny balls of energy and they boldly surrounded us every time we pished along the forest edges.


Searching for American pipits in corn stubble can test your vision (how many do you see?)

I enjoy the challenge of finding certain species on these bird counts – a Ross’s goose hidden in a flock of thousands of snow geese, an elusive fox sparrow (no luck this year), an owl (we did flush a single great horned owl while walking in the woods), and the dirt-colored American pipits hidden in plain sight out in the plowed or cut fields (we found a nice flock in one field).

Four bald eagles

It was a good day for bald eagles (here are 4 of the 10 seen at this one point on the lake)

And there are always surprises. This year, the bald eagles put on quite a show. We started the morning with four in the fields as we entered the refuge. Later, in our one spot to view Pungo Lake, we had ten eagles in view, often taking turns knocking one another off of perches along the lake shore.

Red wolf track in mud

Fresh red wolf tracks

Our biggest surprise came with a quick sighting of a red wolf as it dashed across a dirt road and into a corn field, quickly disappearing into the dense stand. It turned out to be a very good day for mammals – white-tailed deer, river otter, nutria, a gray squirrel, and six bears rounded out our observations (along with plenty of huge bear scat as well as scat from bobcat and fox).

Resting swans

The sun finally made an appearance lat in the afternoon, warming these resting swans

Late in the day, the cold rains stopped, the dense clouds moved out, and the sun broke through, but the steady wind reminded us that this can be a very cold place. Walking on “Bear Road” at the end of the day reminded me of so many trips from my past – a sense of wildness and wide open spaces in this place that continues to provide natural wonders with each visit. The bad weather had driven most other visitors away, so we had the place to ourselves – again, a reminder of the the early years when, if I saw one other car on the refuge, it was a busy day.

Flying swans

Tundra swan flyover with sunset approaching

The golden glow of an approaching sunset illuminated the woods and caught the feathers of swans returning to the safety of the lake for another night. The only sounds were those of nature – swans calling, the deep drumming of a distant pileated woodpecker, the faint low hoot of a great horned owl.

sunset at Pungo

A fiery end to a chilly day

As we walked back toward our car, the western sky exploded in fire like it so often does here in winter. There are so many reasons I love this place. A big one is that it allows me the time and space to look around and appreciate the many wonders this world has to offer, if only we give it the chance. Help support our public lands – they are medicine for our souls.

half moom

There are many wonders in our world, just waiting for us to pause and enjoy

2017 Christmas Bird Count results (Pungo Unit only)

30,000 Snow Goose
7 Ross’s Goose
198 Canada Goose
22724 Tundra Swan
2 Wood Duck
20 Northern Shoveler
222 Gadwall
300 American Wigeon
229 Mallard
40 American Black Duck
10 Northern Pintail
3 Green-winged Teal
23 Ring-necked Duck
1 Bufflehead
12 Hooded Merganser
5 Great Blue Heron
9 Turkey Vulture
8 Northern Harrier
15 Bald Eagle
2 Red-tailed Hawk
1 American Coot
170 Killdeer
3 American Woodcock
26 Wilson’s Snipe
26 Ring-billed Gull
180 Mourning Dove
1 Great Horned Owl
2 Red-bellied Woodpecker
8 Downy Woodpecker
1 Hairy Woodpecker
5 Northern Flicker
3 Pileated Woodpecker
2 American Kestrel
6 Eastern Phoebe
1 Blue Jay
10 American Crow
5 Fish Crow
0 crow sp.
5 Carolina Chickadee
4 Tufted Titmouse
2 White-breasted Nuthatch
8 Carolina Wren
5 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
5 Eastern Bluebird
800 American Robin
1 Brown Thrasher
7 Northern Mockingbird
60 American Pipit
3 Palm Warbler
489 Yellow-rumped Warbler
357 White-throated Sparrow
28 Savannah Sparrow
18 Song Sparrow
9 Swamp Sparrow
6 Eastern Towhee
15 Northern Cardinal
900 Red-winged Blackbird

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