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Bruce Mactavish: A wild snow goose chase

A lone snow goose stands strong on the side of the ice-choked river in Branch.
A lone snow goose stands strong on the side of the ice-choked river in Branch. - Bruce Mactavish photo

Sometime over the Christmas holidays a snow goose appeared at Branch on the southern Avalon Peninsula. Word of the novelty bounced around the community of Branch and eventually reached the St. John’s birding community thanks to a heads up from Chris Mooney. Snow geese are pretty rare on the island of Newfoundland with an average of only one or two per year. The average goes well below that for the Avalon Peninsula.

Some birders found an opening between weather systems and Christmas socials to make the trek from St. John’s to Branch. Members of the retirement sector could pick their day of convenience after New Year to see the popular white goose. Finally, on the first full weekend of 2018 the leftover birders had a chance to go. On Saturday it was Alison Mews, Catherine Barrett and myself making the trip to see the snow goose. It did not matter about the snow squall warning posted by Environment Canada.

Determined to make a full birding day out of the opportunity we detoured to Harricott on the way south. It was a treat to see a tight little flock of 13 spirited bufflehead ducks diving close to the bridge. An unexpected group of five American pipits flew past us on the beach. Dovekies were flying close along the shore line after being driven deep into the bay by the strong winds and poor visibility in the back to back snow squalls.

A field bare of snow on the other side of the inlet caught our attention. It was cropped like a golf course. There were still sheep out in the field despite the horizontal snow falling. I scanned it with my trusty binoculars and was rewarded with an intriguing goose-like shape. We got out the spotting scopes and set them up on the sheltered side of the car. Amazingly, it was actually a goose and a rare one at that, it was a brant goose. Not quite as rare as a snow goose but extremely unusual in January. This was a good start to the day.

There was more birding to be had along the way. At North Harbour, S.M.B., there was a nice mix of goldeneyes and mergansers, more dovekies and an notable group of six horned grebes. Flocks of snow buntings were flying up along the side of the road.

We arrived at Branch in middle of a snow squall. To kill time while waiting for the squall to pass we found ourselves looking out to sea at the powerful rollers crashing in on the beach. A number of people parked in their trucks were doing the same.

When the snow cleared the sky became miraculously blue. We began to systematically scan the shoreline of the ice-choked river and sure enough there was a pink bill attached to a white neck and a white body. Right in front of where we were standing was the snow goose. Snow geese do not normally occur where there is ice and snow during their lifetime, but the white plumage was certainly an advantage to keeping out of sight in the wintry scene at Branch on this day. The goose was grovelling in the shallow water by the edge of the river. They specialize in the roots of grasses and aquatic vegetation. Was it getting enough to eat or was it barely surviving? It looked content. It has a long road ahead, but if there is not too much snow cover it could make it.

With the snow goose in the bag and half the daylight hours still remaining we went to Point Lance for a look. There was a plover on the road. It was killdeer. This would turn out to be part of an influx of killdeers on the Avalon driven north by the much-publicized weather bomb that went through on the day before. The high seas rolling in from the southwest were impressive. As in Branch, some people of Point Lance were parked in their trucks watching the force of nature.

The west side of the bay was partially protected from the wind. It was not surprising to see a number of sea ducks sheltering here. Among the common eiders, long-tailed ducks and red-breasted mergansers were harlequin ducks. Many harlequin ducks. In fact, more harlequin ducks than any of us had seen at one time before. A quick count between the rollers resulted in a tally of 120 harlequin ducks. Many of them were the attractive drakes.

The sun was in and out between intense snow squalls. The colossal seas were crashing on the rock face across the bay in great explosions sending white water almost into the forest. The roar of the wind and waves added to the sense wildness and awe. It was the end of a great day of birding in January.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at wingingitone@yahoo.ca

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