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The Wellfleet Pink-footed Goose

On Thanksgiving morning, there was just one large, meaty bird on the minds of Cape Cod birders. I am of course referring to the rare Pink-footed Goose discovered that morning in Wellfleet. With just two prior records for the Cape and Islands, this was a bird to see. So it was that I loaded my son and all his toddlery accoutrements into the family car and headed to Wellfleet on Thanksgiving morning, leaving my poor wife behind with the baby, the parade on TV, and several side-dishes still to make.

Earlier that morning, Mass Audubon volunteer and former staffer Peggy Sagan looked out her back window overlooking the Duck Creek marshes to find an odd, small goose in the company of the usual Canada Geese – it was the Pink-footed. Word got out quick, and birders began arriving within the hour. But neither I nor any other birder that rushed to Wellfleet Harbor that morning saw the goose again. The Canada Geese were still there, and hundreds of Brant, our winter goose of saltwater habitats, soon lined the harbor on the outgoing tide, but that was all.

Pink-footed Geese breed in the Arctic from Eastern Greenland and Iceland to Arctic Europe. Almost all of the population, hundreds of thousands of geese, winters in the British Isles, where they take advantage of post-harvest agricultural waste, especially potatoes and sugar beets. This may be why no one has ever described a goose as “svelte”. Like many geese that use crop fields in winter, their population has been exploding, which explains the recent increase in sightings here in Massachusetts – there were no records before 1999, but now they are annual visitors.

Everyone knows the Canada Goose, often referred to as “Canadian Geese” by the uninitiated. Year-round denizens of golf course and highway median, these are the dreaded park grass poopers and chasers of children, the geese that hiss when you get too close to their chicks. But I’ll wager that you didn’t know that eight species of goose have been seen within the CAI listening area. I’ll bet you also didn’t know that in many places on the Cape and Islands, Canada Geese are only the second most common goose – on the bay side from Dennis to Truro they are outnumbered by Brant in winter.

You may also know Snow Geese, the often all-white winter visitor to the region. A few have been seen in Sandwich and on Nantucket in the last couple of weeks. The other species are all vagrants, which is why you’ve never heard of them. They include the Greater White-fronted Goose (known as speckle-bellies to old hunters), the Cackling Goose, and the very rare Ross’s Goose and Barnacle Goose.

Hopefully I’ll have occasion to cover those species another time. As for the Wellfleet Pink-footed Goose, its story did not end on Thanksgiving. Because on Saturday, as I arrived with my son to use the playground, I rediscovered it among the Canada Geese at Eldredge Park in Orleans. I got the word out and the first birders arrived in about ten minutes. After an hour, a dozen were lined up with scopes and cameras. 

The goose was still present on the ball field as of yesterday, so it’s worth looking for it if you get a chance. Hopefully it’s still there because I’d hate to send you on a wild goose chase. And if you didn’t see that ending coming a mile away, you must be a first-time listener – welcome! Also, it gets worse.