Saturday, December 27, 2008

Wild Goose Chase

I know it's a cliche, but "wild goose chase" accurately describes my travels yesterday. I decided to embark on possibly my last long Bigby ride of the year in search of a couple special geese on Saturday morning.

The story begins on Christmas Eve. On that day my dad and I drove around to do some last-minute Christmas shopping, and popped around a couple spots quickly to look for birds. One of those places was North Lake in Irvine, one of those nasty sterile urban lakes that is overrun with coots and domestic ducks. Interesting birds occasionally show up in these kinds of places, so they are always worth checking out. Sure enough, I spotted an interesting trio of geese - two Cackling Geese and a Ross's Goose. By no means are either of these species super-rare, but they aren't common in Orange County and were not on my Bigby list.

After an hour-long bike ride in brisk temperatures, I arrived at North Lake early on Friday morning and was greeted by the quacking of Mallards and grunting of American Coots. I circled the lake, carefully scanning the water and lawn for geese. After half and hour I convinced myself that the geese weren't there and continued on to San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, determined to find that accursed Northern Waterthrush that I seem utterly incapable of locating. Even more of the riparian area at San Joaquin was flooded, created more potential waterthrush habitat and thus making the search even more hopeless. After a couple hours of wandering around, carefully scanning the flooded forest floor and keeping my ears alert for calls, I gave up.

Upper Newport Bay was next on the list. I reasoned that something, perhaps the missing geese, might show up there. I rode into a headwind around the bay, found nothing unusual save a Eurasian Wigeon, and turned around to head back. Instead of the tailwind I expected, the wind had shifted and I was again laboring against the wind. Ugh.

Mason Regional Park is just off the bike trail I take home, so I deviated to scan the lake for the missing geese. There were plenty of Canada Geese loitering around the edge of the scummy lake, but they weren't the geese I was looking for. Hundreds of coots stormed in my direction the instant I started snacking on a granola bar. I also noticed a small group of Northern Shovelers doing what they do best (shoveling) nearby and sneaked up for a few photos.

I decided to take another look at North Lake on the way home, since it was only a couple miles out of my way. I'm glad I did, because just minutes after arriving I spotted the stray trio of geese grazing on the lawn on the opposite side of the lake. A tense five-minute whirlwind ride and I was there, watching two Cackling Geese and a Ross's Goose at point-blank range.

The Cackling Geese were true midgets, undoubtedly of the "Aleutian" race. This race is easily identified by the thick white neck ring and overall darkness. Unfortunately, the Ross's Goose had a knack for turning its head or moving just as I was taking the photo, so I didn't get any really great shots of it. This one would have come out nicely, if only I hadn't cut off the tail.

I was very happy to add these two species of geese to my Bigby list. They will likely be my last new Bigby species of the year, since I don't have any more long rides planned. I decided against riding to Bolsa Chica, because that is a fifty-two mile round trip and I would only have about nine hours of daylight to ride and also find my target birds. As alluring as that handful of new species is, I don't like the idea of riding through Santa Ana at night. With the geese, my Bigby list stands at 235. Just a few more days until it starts over again!

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