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Always in Season/ Mike Jacobs: Late March provides memorable goose watching

The south wind on Tuesday, March 31, helped a large share of the continent’s goose population push northward. Geese of five species migrate through North Dakota, some in huge numbers.

MJ bird vertical.jpg
Illustration by Mike Jacobs

Well! Wasn’t it a week for geese?

The south wind on Tuesday, March 31, helped a large share of the continent’s goose population push northward. Geese of five species migrate through North Dakota, some in huge numbers.

Most of the geese flying over our place west of Gilby, N.D., were Canada geese, easily recognizable by the honking even if they can’t be seen. This apparently unending chatter may be undertaken to keep touch across the flock, and perhaps between flocks. Whatever the case, it is a distinctive sound of spring migration.

A smaller version of the Canada goose also occurs here on migration. This is the cackling goose, named for its call. The Canada goose is common here; the cackling goose less so, reflecting the relative size of their populations.

The snow goose, on the other hand, is truly abundant. Several million snow geese pass through North Dakota on their annual migration. Their flocks are generally larger than those of Canada geese and are equally as noisy, although their notes are higher pitched and shorter. Snow geese often pass in successive flocks, almost as if waves of birds were sweeping across the sky, making snow goose migration one of the natural world’s great spectacles. The migration route for the bulk of the continent’s snow goose population is farther west, through central North Dakota. A very similar bird, Ross’s goose, passes through our area as well, sometimes mixing with flocks of snow geese. The birds are distinguishable – but it takes a closer look than passing flocks afford.


Snow geese aren’t necessarily white, despite the common name. A substantial number of them are darker and go by the name “blue goose.” This is a color morph, however; birds of both colors interbreed freely. “Snows and blue” are one species.

Finally, there is the greater white-fronted goose. White-fronted geese are regular migrants here, but they are never as numerous as the other geese, though they may outnumber Ross’s geese, especially in eastern North Dakota.

These geese differ from the other goose species that occur here in several ways. First, they are global citizens, breeding from the western coast of Hudson’s Bay westward across northern Russia, almost reaching the border with Norway. Greater white-fronted geese also occur in Greenland. North American migrants winter in Mexico. Those from the Russian north migrate in large numbers to Japan and China as well as the Middle East. This gives the greater white-fronted goose a wider range than any other species of goose. By comparison, North American geese are more strictly continental, although some, especially Canada geese, have established beachheads in northwestern Europe, including Britain, Scandinavia and the Netherlands.

Among geese breeding in North America, the greater white-fronted goose is distinctive. In Eurasia, this isn’t the case, which accounts for the rather clumsy common name of this bird. There’s also a lesser white-fronted goose, though it doesn’t occur in North America, and the similarity isn’t likely to confuse North American birders, the way that the very similar Canada and cackling geese do. Or Ross’s and snow geese. Or the lumping of color morphs into a single species.

The greater white-fronted is a handsome bird. Overall, it appears grayish brown, though in good light some plumage may seem paler, sometimes even buffy. Almost the entire plumage is streaked with black, and this becomes dominant on the breast and belly. On the neck and upper back, it resembles dark piping on a lighter background. The white front that gives the bird its common name is pretty hard to see. It refers to the area immediately behind the bill; the front of the head, in other words, rather than the front of the body.

Unfortunately, the goose seldom gives watchers a chance to see that white front, because most of the greater white-fronted geese seen in our area are in flight. That doesn’t preclude identifying a passing flock of geese as greater white-fronted geese, however, because they make a particular, instantly recognizable sound, a kind of rising two or three notes, more musical than the atonal honking of Canada geese or the sharp chattering of snow geese. Still, the white-fronted goose is no songster. Instead, its calls seem more like laughter. That has given the bird a nickname, “laughing goose.”

These birds are strictly migrants here, and they pass in smaller numbers. Each sighting is memorable; indeed, coming upon a flock of white-fronted geese resting on a flooded field is among my favorite birding memories.

It makes me smile.


Wrong again

In a column about peregrine falcons published March 22, Joshua Hammer, author of “The Falcon Thief,” was identified as a Brit. He’s an American.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs

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