Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Phenology: Canada Geese

This post really ought to have a picture of Canada geese, but I was too low on phone minutes to snap one yesterday, when I observed that (possibly for the first time) a couple of Branta canadensis seem to be nesting beside Gate City's Quarry Pond.

For a gallery of excellent Canada geese images, click here:


The geese are found all over North America, and sometimes in Europe. Canada is merely where those who object to finding large, soft wads of digested grass in their driveway futilely order the geese to go back to. If the geese had any idea what these people meant, they'd be saying "Whaaat?" Most of the geese soiling U.S. driveways were hatched here. Canada geese love lawns and golf courses. If those things are located near to a body of water, sooner or later the geese will move in.

Some people have eaten them, but by all reports they were awfully hungry at the time. You know how ducks seem to be mostly grease? Geese are the same way, only more so. It's that dense layer of goose grease underneath the dense layers of goose down that allow the birds to bask contentedly on the ice when their favorite body of water starts to freeze over.

Ann Mackie Miller includes most of the standard data about Canada geese with her photos, so what I'll add is an anecdote. Geese of all breeds are likely to stay with one mate for life, and they're not very sociable in the summer while rearing their young. They can get downright hostile if anyone approaches their babies. In winter, however, when they travel in flocks, they're unprejudiced; flocks of Canada geese often include a few stray geese of domestic breeds. Although domestic geese may or may not fly well enough to travel very far with their wild friends, they can make themselves useful to a flock that have settled down for the winter.

On the Anacostia River where my husband and I used to walk on sunny days, the flock of resident Canada geese included a pair of Brown Chinese geese. We observed that these domestic geese were weaker fliers, but faster swimmers, than the Canada geese. When the flock were swimming they often took the lead. After the female China goose died, the male (gander) seemed to step into the role of Tribal Elder, lacking a mate but apparently allowed to dominate most of the Canada geese.

This went on for a few years, and eventually, as the China Gander stayed on the section of the river most of the Canada geese left in summer, he was allowed to stay close to one couple as a nest helper. That winter, when the goslings grew up and paired off, a young female Canada goose started sticking to the China Gander like glue. We guessed that this was one of the daughters of the couple who had been merely tolerating this third bird around their nest site. In spring, she apparently mated with one of her own kind, but seemed to try to spend time with the China Gander when she could. This unusual three-way bond lasted for at least two summers--until I left the city. The last time I saw these birds, they were still together. The goslings showed no signs of successful crossbreeding; I don't know whether the Canada goose and the China Gander ever actually tried to mate, or were merely fond of each other.

It's hard for humans to tell geese apart, much less love them--but they do love one another. A goose that is harmed by territorial humans will be missed for a long time by its friends and family.

Further phenological notes: Dogwoods and redbuds have bloomed, but not in anything like their usual spring glory. Bidens, dragged in by the cats, are trying to take over the not-a-lawn at the Cat Sanctuary and I spent parts of Sunday and Monday uprooting them. Fleabane daisies--wispy little asters in the genus Erigeron that aren't even closely related to "real" daisies, like these shown at Morguefile--have been blooming abundantly...

...and, possibly because of the strange winter weather, some of them look different from usual. Our fleabane daisies are usually white, sometimes pale rose-pink, but this spring I'm seeing several flowers with pale lavender undersides; sometimes even the upper sides show a lavender cast.

Some people's blooms include iris and clover, already, but at the Cat Sanctuary violets, vincas, and dandelions still prevail. We're at a high enough altitude to get refrigerator-cold but not freezing temperatures at night, and I've not seen an iris bud yet. However, this out-of-season weather does seem to be encouraging some less common wildflowers to bloom more profusely than usual down along the road. I'm seeing trilliums, bloodroot, and buttercups. (Buttercups are common down in the old cow pasture below the road, but not common in the road.)

Songbirds are back! Last summer, after poison was sprayed along Route 23, we found lots of dead songbirds. I saw and heard very few songbirds, apart from crows and my resident wrens and cardinals (the Cat Sanctuary is a twenty-minute walk from Route 23). Then during February's deep freeze, several of the usual winter visitor species died, too. However, our usual spring birds are back. I'm seeing robins, warblers, chickadees, sparrows and lots of the Little Brown Ones. (People with astigmatism can't identify the hundred or so songbird species we call Little Brown Ones.)

Listening to their calls as I've walked along Route 23 this spring has been pleasant...but useless for identification, because mockingbirds have moved into Scott County. This morning I heard a mockingbird imitating the songs of at least two different native songbirds, with a few imitations of other species thrown in between them, in Duffield. This mockingbird is a creative and energetic little fellow, especially at night. The last time I walked through Duffield, around midnight, I heard him imitate different birds for more than ten minutes--as long as I was within earshot--without a break or repetition. Like most mockingbirds he wasn't badly distracted by the human passing by. I have heard mockingbirds imitate humans and humans' gadgets, but this one stuck to bird calls.