A Wild Goose Chase on Thanksgiving

Among the many things I am most thankful for are my two great kids: Alex and Miya.  Since they are 28 and 32 respectively and definitely very grown up, it may be wrong to call them “kids”, but I guess that is a prerogative of being a parent.  I had the chance to join them in Boston for Thanksgiving and somehow that holiday seems more real in New England.  We had a fabulous dinner – pumpkin pie (with whipped cream of course), stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes (with marshmallows of course), green beans, broccoli and cauliflower, rolls, cranberry sauce and of course a beautiful brown Turkey.  Plenty of leftovers and way too many calories, but a wonderful meal and good time together.

I had a chance to walk around Miya’s Brookline neighborhood before the meal so the Turkey was not the first bird I encountered, but it was definitely the only one incapable of flight and making no sound.  Although the area is very urban, I was surprised by the amount of birdlife.  Blue Jays scolded me, each others and the world in general from trees and porches. Northern Cardinals added their flash of color in many spots and House Sparrows were conspicuous and noisy.  A few Black Capped Chickadees were joined by even fewer White Breasted Nuthatches and the inevitable Starlings and Rock Pigeons abounded.  Not a long list, but individuals were plentiful and the Jays and Cardinals were a sharp reminder that I was no longer in Washington – how nice if I could find those birds in my Edmonds neighborhood.

Blue Jay




Yes the purpose of the trip was to see family and celebrate Thanksgiving, but I was able to break away for a little birding.  Originally the plan had been to go to Cape Cod and try to add some new ABA Birds – specifically Dovekie and Cory’s and Great Shearwaters.  But birding requires flexibility – and a little luck always helps.  I had the good fortune to have “met” Mike Resch earlier in the month when we exchanged info by phone and online to help him add to his Washington List on a visit.  Mike has the staggering accomplishment of observing more than 50% of the “possible species” in 47 states.  On his visit to Washington, he not only added I think 18 birds to his state list in an insane three day mad dash, he also was the one that first found the Prothonotary Warbler at Neah Bay.  Mike returned the favor by helping me with some ideas for good spots to go and then upped the ante when he informed me that a Pink Footed Goose was being seen near Newburyport and offered to meet me there and serve as tour guide.  The Shearwaters and Dovekie would just have to wait for another time.

I met Mike on Scotland Road just off Interstate 95 in pretty thick fog.  We scoured the fields where the goose had last been seen but found no geese at all.  We tried the waterfront in Newburyport near Parker River NWR and then went to a couple of reservoirs where we finally found some birds including 5 species of Woodpeckers and – some geese!!  The Pink Footed had been associating with flocks of Canada Geese so we were optimistic and excited.  We found more than 100 Canada Geese and a small group of Cackling Geese but sadly no small geese with brown heads and pink feet.  While this was of course a major disappointment, it was still very much a fun excursion for me.

I repeat my mantra that birding inserts us in situations where we have the opportunity to see great places, meet great people, and see great birds.  Definitely the case here as the whole area was lovely, interesting and very different from my normal Washington birding haunts.  Newburyport has homes dating back to the 17th Century and is very picturesque.  Mike is a fascinating guy and super birder whose ears just may challenge Frank Caruso’s – maybe something about starting birding in New England where it is even more of a benefit than in the West.  And often as a result of his acute hearing, I was able to find birds like Tufted Titmouse, Red Bellied Woodpecker, White Throated Sparrow and more Cardinals, Nuthatches and Jays that are definitely not everyday (or even ever) birds in Washington.

White Throated Sparrow


White Breasted Nuthatch


Tufted Titmouse


And stay tuned because the reservoir will have a repeat performance of great importance.  We met other birders searching for (and not finding) the Pink Footed Goose and one of them told us of a Tufted Duck that he had seen earlier that morning at Johnson’s Pond – not far away in Groveland.  So off we went.  Ponds in New England come in all sizes and this one is quite large, but Mike relatively quickly found a distant duck with a very dark back and very pale sides distinguishing it from its neighboring Scaup and making it our Tufted Duck.  Now especially after my finding a beautiful mature male Tufted Duck with a very prominent tuft, this guy was not impressive with barely a nub of a tuft, but unmistakable and definitely a great find.  I was more impressed with the numerous Mute Swans – debatable if they are even countable in Washington.

Tufted Duck with Scaup and Mute Swan


Tufted Duck Wings


Mute Swan


Along the way we also had nice close-ups of American Black Ducks – abundant here but never found in Washington, so I could not pass up the photo-op catching one of the many Ruddy Ducks around as well.

American Black Duck


Ruddy Duck


It was approaching the time that Mike was going to have to get on with non-birding matters, so we revisited the Scotland Road fields now with some clearer skies – but still no geese so it really had been a wild goose chase – but without the wild goose.  We parted company and I went off in search of a Purple Sandpiper at Plum Island.  I had been there maybe 20 years ago in the summer and had fond but non-specific memories.  There is a large salt marsh area – very different than our Washington marshes and reminiscent of Scarborough Marsh in Maine which I had enjoyed last year.  Being November there were no shorebirds and very little else in the marsh itself but driving out to the end of the road, I found a few birds along the way including a Barred Owl, several Tree Sparrows and a Northern Mockingbird.  Nice to get a photo since I had missed the Mocker in Neah Bay on our last visit.

Northern Mockingbird


When I got to the rocks at the end of the park another birder was heading out with his scope – his target also a Purple Sandpiper.  We went different directions saying we would wave and scream if either of us met with success.  Unfortunately I think the tide was wrong and the only shorebirds seen were five Sanderlings on a flyby.  I had close-ups of a Greater Black Backed Gull and a Herring Gull – the larus species of choice here.

Greater Black Backed Gull


Herring Gull


Time for me to go as well.  I made another stop by Scotland Road again without geese and headed south to Boston – with traffic fortunately being very light.  Sure enough after getting back,  I got a call from Mike who had found a report of the Pink Footed Goose near one of the areas we had visited.  That’s the trouble with birds.  They have wings and they know how to use them.  The area we had searched was quite large and it could have been anywhere – being at Spot A as we had been at Spot B or vice versa.

Although I could not make it work then, I determined to try later and did return to Newburyport and particularly to the Upper Artichoke Reservoir where finally a goose with pink feet cooperated even if often hard to separate from the Canada Geese it was with.  It was too far for a photo – although if I had known the area better I probably could have gotten close enough on a different road, but the ID was pretty easy with the small size, brown body and even browner head and a pinkish bill with a dark tip.  The photo is from another birder.

Pink Footed Goose


Maybe someday one will show up for a chase in Washington.  Mike says he may be out my way again.  Maybe he will repeat the Prothonotary Warbler feat and find one for us – probably at Neah Bay.

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