Flight Lines: Waterfowl migration hard to miss throughout the region
It started about 10 days ago with a phone call from a friend who found himself just south of West Fargo. In a rather excited tone he related how he had just seen a huge flock of snow geese moving north; a flock he estimated at roughly 50,000 birds. The waterfowl migration has let up little since then and at times it's been difficult to take a scan of the sky and not see at least some birds winging this way or that.
Just last weekend another acquaintance and I viewed a flooded corn field west of Harwood which easily contained over 100,000 birds, mostly snow geese. The migratory movements of literally millions of snow geese still represent one of the grandest wildlife spectacles this continent has to offer in my opinion.
But it's not just snow geese moving around. Sifting their way across long-established corridors is a variety of ducks, geese, and swans. Included in the five-species suite of geese currently migrating is the greater white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons), a less well known but nonetheless common bird. Hunters often refer to them as "specklebellies."
The North American population of white-fronted geese is estimated to be somewhere in the one million range. Two fairly distinct populations are apparent on this continent, with one wintering in California's Central Valley, the other in the Gulf Coast region and Mexico. If the northern hemisphere was an ice cream sundae, the migratory routes of this circumpolar species would appear as drizzling chocolate rivers covering nearly the entire treat.
Among hunters white-fronts are considered a trophy of sorts. North Dakota Game and Fish biologist Doug Leier said, "It's a niche hunt within a niche group of hunters." To gun specklebellies some American waterfowlers even travel to Canada where regulations are somewhat more relaxed.
White-fronts are about the same size as snow geese but with shorter necks. "White-front" does not refer to the bird's breast but its white-rimmed face surrounding a pink bill. The body is an overall brownish-gray with scattered horizontal black barring along its belly. Of our regularly occurring geese it's the only one with pink legs.
This is a bird which is pretty well studied in the Old World but data is rather scant in North America. As a result sometimes conflicting information is presented. I found a source which said the bird rarely associates with snow geese preferring to cavort with Canada geese instead. Yet white-fronts and snows seem to mingle fairly commonly around here. In another example, a well-respected expert wrote "white-fronts rarely occur in large flocks." I realize "large" is subjective but single flying flocks of up to 2,000 individuals were noted just last weekend.
The birds are heading north to Alaska and central and western Canada where they will arrive on nesting grounds fairly close to the Arctic Circle still covered in snow. Unlike most geese white-fronts are not considered colonial nesters. Instead the birds nest on dry tundra alone or in small loose groups most often near water.
Cornell University's Birds of North America online calls the greater white-fronted goose "long-lived." I'll say. I found a case from the early 20th century where a wounded female was kept on a farm in Nebraska for 47 years.
Along with rising temperatures, waterfowl migration is just another source of enjoyment this time of year. Even folks who don't venture out of town can't help but notice the overhead flocks. Picking out greater white-fronted geese from the masses of other species isn't all that hard. Look for the dark geese with a "headlight." Better yet listen. Canada geese give the classic honking and snows let out a raucous bugling yelp. white-fronts, on the other hand, utter a quick two- or three-note laugh. Almost as if they're excited about spring too.