the Rookie Birder

I have watched birds all my life, but after reading "The Big Year," "Grail Bird" and especially Kenn Kaufman's "Kingbird Highway," plus Santa's timely stocking stuffer of "Sibley's 2003 Eastern & Western Field Guides," I made the decision to become a rookie birder beginning January 1st, 2006.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Snow Geese & Ross's Geese at Montrose Harbor

Montrose Harbor
Chicago on the lakefront at Montrose

Thursday, Friday & Saturday, February 16-18, 2006

It has been a good week for birding, one that seemed like it would only get better when Thursday afternoon it was posted on IBET (http://BirdingOnThe.Net/mailinglists/IBET.htm) by Kanae H that her neighbor Pamela M had tipped her off that there were some 20 SNOW GEESE at the beach house at Montrose Beach with some 50 CANADA GEESE. Earlier today I had tried to find a half a dozen Snow Geese that were reported in the Chicago River at Addison, but I was unable to find them, so I was hopeful I would get a chance to see this group instead.

As soon as Lynne got home, which was late, I headed off to Montrose Beach & Harbor area. Even though it might be late when I got there, I knew the area had lights and I might still get to see them even though it would be late dusk. I couldn't find them anywhere, and I went home without a sighting. I did have a nice walk around the Montrose Bird Sanctuary for the first time, and I can't wait to see what is there some morning.

Friday morning I read that Bob H, one of Chicagoland's most renowned birding experts, had not only reconfirmed more than 20 SNOW GEESE of both the light and dark morph, including some juveniles of each, but even more unusual for Chicago, two ROSS'S GEESE as well. You can clearly see the size difference with the smaller middle bird, a Ross's Geese, here in flight with Snow Geese (photo Kanae Hirabayashi). I called my neighbor to see if I could borrow her car, and off to the lake front I hurried as I had a lunch meeting with some clients at 1145am.

I got down to Montrose and checked by the beach house, nothing. But while I was there, I heard them, and then saw them in flight behind me. I raced over to the Montrose Harbor, it looked like they landed outside the Harbor in the lake or on the Marovitz Golf Course. I was so excited to see birds number #76 and #77 for the year.

It wasn't that easy.

The group of 30 individuals was in the lake, and though I could easily see the SNOW GEESE, I was having no luck picking out the Ross's Geese. Need to get a scope. As I was walking away, I noticed a lone Snow Goose with a group of 50 or so Canada Geese that had moved into the harbor. I watched him for 5 or so minutes and took some photos of him. Something about his bill and small size just didn't seem right. As they turned around and moved back into the open water of Lake Michigan, it occurred to me that this could be a ROSS'S GOOSE (photo Jeff Skrentny). Bill meeting the feathers at base in straight line, blue-ish bill at back, and no grin patch. This was a Ross's Goose, right here in front of my nose, close to the rocks and an easy study. I took a few more photos through my Swift Audubon 8.5x44 bins with my Cannon Digital and was on my way home to get to that client lunch.

After lunch, early that evening, I had a chance to read what everyone had been posting that day about these birds, and it turns out that in addition to Snow and Ross's Geese with this pack, there was probably one hybrid of the two as well. How fun. It was possible the one I took photos of was that bird. But after sharing it with several birders more experienced than I, most of us concluded that my photos were of a ROSS'S GOOSE, so I did indeed get to see both and that made bird #77 for the year.

But I wasn't satisfied after sleeping on it over night. I wanted to see the Ross's Goose with the Snow Geese to really notice the size difference. Back to Montrose I went on what was the coldest morning in Chicago in years...2 degrees with a wind chill of -18. COLD, cold day to look at birds, my wife Lynne thought I was nuts. In this photo in the lower left corner, you can see both a Ross's and Snow Goose, note the size difference of the smaller Ross's Goose behind the front most Snow (photo Jeff Skrentny).

Once I got down to Montrose, I drove out to the point of the harbor for a first look. They were across the way in the water outside the harbor close to the rock beach behind the Marovitz Golf Course. While I was discussing them with another birder, they took flight and moved to the golf course. I was on my way back. The other birder told me they had counted 27 birds, including one Ross's Goose. That was my target bird. If I could just get a view of the geese together I could be confident I had seen both.

I got over to the golf course, jumped the fence (and slightly ripped my jacket...not as young and spry as I once was I guess) and walked up behind the birds making sure trees blocked me from their view. I got behind a pine tree about 50 yards away and counted 27 birds, and found what seemed like a Ross's Goose with the Snow Geese. But I was too far away for a positive ID. There was one pine tree even closer, so I walked a long way around to get behind it without spooking them and got to within 20 yards of them. What a sight. I was so cold, but I couldn't believe what a good look I had. There were two white morph juveniles, two dark (blue) morph juveniles, 3 dark (blue) morph adults, and several white adults with the distinctive yellow/orange/rusty head. They were all sitting down, eating, then getting up for a step or two before sitting down to eat more. They looked cold.

Where was the Ross's Goose? That is why I was braving this cold. I looked at each bird, and about 8 into it, I found him, significantly smaller, say half or 60% of the size of the Snow Geese, had the short bill with the straight vertical line between the bill and the feathers, as well as the very straight lower bill. I had my Ross's Goose (photo by Ed Tuene), and I could confidently say it was bird #77. Additionally, there was one more bird that sort of looked like a Ross's, but it was too big, with a neck too long, still the bill was distinctly shorter with that vertical line where it met the feathers. Several IBET posters had been talking about a Snow & Ross's hybrid, was this that bird? Probably.

I was too cold for any more detailed observing. My fingers were permanently frozen wrapped around my bins, and I was shivering so much I couldn't hold the bins still despite layers and layers of clothes. I attempted a few digiscope shots with my camera before the battery died, and then hurried to my car to warm up before heading out to count some birds at for the "Great Backyard Bird Count."

A good day, as I confirmed I had seen a Ross's Goose today, and yesterday, which means I saw:

#76 SNOW GOOSE, both dark (blue) and white morph w/juveniles of each
& a likely ROSS'S & SNOW hybrid


  • At 6:19 AM, Blogger Eddie said…

    Greetings, I was reading some blogs and came across your blog. I really enjoy how it makes such good reading.

    I'll come by again.


  • At 8:19 AM, Blogger The Flap-turbine said…

    Hi Rookie Birder,

    Can I use one of your hawk picture in my animation teaching about flight mechanism.
    I will put a link to your blog.
    Here is my YouTube site


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