Why We Chase…A Wild Goose Chase with a Happy Ending and Self Questioning

Background

On October 25, 2018 two Finnish birders reported seeing a Bean Goose at the William L. Finley NWR south of Corvallis, OR.  This undocumented sighting made it onto the American Birding Association (ABA) Rare Bird Alert (RBA) on October 28th and the Portland Audubon Society RBA on November 1st.  Then silence and no reports or observations followed…until November 25th when it was located at the McFadden Marsh at the NWR and reported by many.

The ABA and the American Ornithological Union (AOU) currently recognize two species of Bean GooseTundra Bean Goose and Taiga Bean Goose.  The Finley bird was believed to be a Tundra Bean GooseBean Geese breed across Eurasia from Norway to Siberia, and winter south to southern Europe and China, favoring open grassland and farmland – including bean fields – hence its name.  It is a rare but regular visitor to the Aleutians and the Bering Sea region of Alaska during its northward migration in spring but has been seen only extremely rarely elsewhere in North America.  Bean Geese are common in Finland so the initial report by the two Finnish birders was credible if incomplete.

And my research is also incomplete but I found only 6 records on Ebird for Tundra Bean Goose outside of remote Alaskan Islands.  All were of single birds.

  • October 1982 – Quebec Province, Canada
  • October 1999 – Whitehorse, Yukon Province, Canada
  • October 2013 – Salton Sea, California
  • November 2013 – Nova Scotia, Canada
  • December 2014 – Nestucca Area, Oregon (continued for many months)
  • January 2018 – Bird shot by hunter in Arkansas

My focus was on other matters when the Nestucca bird was reported in 2014 and 2015.  Friends made the journey and readily found it.  I did not.

The First Chase

On the afternoon of Sunday November 26th I was on Facebook and saw a report on the ABA Rarities page there that a Tundra Bean Goose had been seen at Finley NWR in OR.  I paid it little attention at first.  Finley NWR is about 290 miles from my home, a distance I have traveled on chases before as part of a Washington Big Year or for the Red Flanked Blue Tail in Idaho.  As rare as that bird was, it was not even a life bird as I had seen one previously in British Columbia – but in miserable rainy conditions and I had no photo.  Photos of the Lewiston, ID bird were exquisite and birding friend Keith Carlson was a willing local guide, so I made the long trek (over and back in two days) and had a great time with great photos.

Red Flanked Bluetail

red-flanked-bluetail1r

Last year in addition to a constant first priority of adding birds and photos to my Washington State List. I set a goal of reaching 700 species on my ABA Life List.  The Island Scrub Jay seen on December 1st accomplished that.  At the beginning of this year I set a goal of getting as close to 700 ABA photos as I could, but knew it would be unlikely and more realistically I could maybe get sufficiently close to reach that goal in 2019.

Island Scrub Jay – Santa Cruz Island – December 1, 2017

Island Scrubjay 1

With some changes in my personal life mid year, I came up with a new “project/adventure” – observing 50 species in each of the 50 states on a single day in each – my so called 50/50/50 Project and my attention lately had primarily been on research, logistics and arrangements for that – maybe adding some of those ABA photos along the way.  The Tundra Bean Goose would be a new ABA Life bird and if photographed a new ABA photo but it was not a Washington bird (first priority) and Oregon was already in the “Done” column for 50 species in a day.  But…what if I could find it, photograph it AND find 50 species in a day?  My previous Oregon 50 was very lackluster.  Another 50 species day with this mega-rarity would be special – adding a new dimension to a chase.

Somehow within a few minutes of first giving it thought, remembering Rule 1 for any chase which is “Go Now”, I decided to give it a try.  I think the key factor was simply that it would be a rewarding thing to do.  And this is important: while in no way thinking I would not find it, my approach to birding had changed.  I had evolved.  I now valued the chase experience itself independently of the result.  Whatever the birding result, ALL of my chases had given me stories, lessons, satisfactions and rewards.  There was nothing on my agenda for the next few days — why not.

I made a couple of calls to see if friends had some interest.  It wasn’t a lot of notice, so maybe that was unlikely, but company is always great.  Several people had made the trek to see the Nestucca Tundra Bean Goose in 2014 so not this time.  I was on my own.  I had seen a comment that many geese roosted at night at the McFadden Marsh. There was no certainty that the Tundra Bean Goose would still be present but I calculated that the greatest likelihood would be that if it was, it would roost with the big flock and that getting there early was wise.  I decided to leave VERY early – around 2:00 a.m. to get there at first light.  I was out the door at 2:15 – at least there would be little traffic.

With only a single stop along the way I arrived at McFadden Marsh at 6:45 a.m. just as there was some light in the sky and some visibility.  I was greeted by thousands of birds – geese, ducks, and swans.  Reports had mentioned “the bridge”, “the blind” and “along Bruce Road”.  I tried them all scoping every bird that I could – some relatively close and many quite distant.  I got excited as I found one goose that was “different”.  But when it finally raised its head, it was a Greater White Fronted Goose – not our guy.  Mostly there were hundreds of Mallards and Cackling Geese.  Within the hour many other birders showed up – on their own “wild goose chases”.

Greater White Fronted Goose

Greater White Fronted Goose

Even with all the eyes on the search, we could have missed the target.  It could have been mixed in and behind others, or behind clumps of grass, or just too distant.  Whatever the case, no success.  Not too long ago, the feelings of disappointment would have been overwhelming and I would have been quite unhappy.  No, I was not thrilled, but somehow it had still been “fun”.  After three hours I decided to head off and explore some other areas including the Cabell Marsh where the Finnish birders had first reported it.  I tried there and visited many other places within the NWR returning to McFadden three more times hoping the Bean Goose had been found.  It was great birding – even without the Bean Goose.  Some highlights:

Red Shouldered Hawk – One of Three Seen

Red Shouldered Hawk1

Red Tailed Hawk – Bathing in Puddle on Road – Allowed me to Get within 6 Feet

Red Tailed Hawk in Puddle1

Wild Turkeys

Wild Turkeys

California Scrub Jay (seen with Acorn Woodpeckers and Western Bluebirds)

California Scrubjay1

At McFadden there were always hundreds or even thousands of waterfowl, with geese flying off and others flying in.  Nobody found the Tundra Bean Goose.  Maybe it had been a one-day wonder.  There was one really odd goose though.  Others had noted it before – either a hybrid or an oddly plumaged Cackling Goose or Emperor Goose mix. It and other waterfowl are below.

“Odd Plumaged” Goose

Odd Goose

Tundra Swan

Tundra Swan Standing

Aleutian(?) Cackling Goose

Cackling Goose

Cackling Geese in Flight

Geese in Flight

Snow Goose

Snow Goose

I hung around until 3:30 – almost 9 hours all told.  No Tundra Bean Goose, even more disappointing since I had found 55 other species that day.  But it was time to leave – fight the traffic around Portland and be home by 10.  Sigh…

And Now for the Rest of the Story…

I wish I had seen the Tundra Bean Goose.  But I also wish that my camera had not malfunctioned as I tried for a photo of a Yellow Rail at the Yellow Rails and Rice Festival in Louisiana.  And I wish that I had bought Amazon in 1998 or Microsoft in 1986.  None of those happened and I am still alive, healthy and looking forward to “next” and I continue to collect experiences, stories and enjoy the process.  That said, I definitely watched the Ebird reports to see if someone else had reported the Tundra Bean Goose from Monday.  Nobody had.  BUT a report did show up for Tuesday, and another for Wednesday and again on Thursday.  Good for them.  Happy for them.  Not competing with them.  But damn…it would have been nice.  I kept working on my trip plans for South Carolina and Georgia, finalized plans for Hawaii and began looking into a winter trip to New Mexico. I also had a couple of social engagements.  But those everyday observations by others did register.

I had dinner with my sister Saturday night.  Literally an hour before heading down to Seattle to see her, I made an executive decision to try again.  Why?  I asked myself that as I made the decision.  There is almost certainly more to it – some psychology – as will be discussed later, but the answer was simple again.  Successful or not this would be a good story, a good experience, something to look back on with a good feeling and something to write about – and something to affirm that I was “ALIVE” – doing something I loved, following a passion and just getting out there and trying.  AND I had a calm sense that I would find the goose and put an exclamation point on the week and the previous attempt.

The Second Chase

After a great dinner at 8:00 p.m. I said goodbye and told my sister I was off to Portland.  She thought I was nuts, and that is likely not the first time she has felt that.  I had thrown a sleeping bag and some pillows in the car and figured I would stop at a rest area somewhere and grab at least a few hours of sleep.  That worked perfectly as I got into Oregon, found a rest area bout 90 minutes from Finley NWR and actually got almost 4 hours of sleep before heading off again around 4:30 a.m.  It was very foggy and pitch black as I pulled into the parking area on Bruce Road near the path out to the blind which is where I planned to start my search.  It would not be light for another hour, but I could already hear geese, swans and ducks cackling, quacking and whistling at the marsh.  I was worried about the fog, but there was nothing I could do about that and I am getting better at not stressing about such things out of my control – unhappy maybe, stressed, no.  I dozed for about 45 minutes and then walked out to the blind with binoculars, camera and scope.  There were thousands of birds – barely visible.  I was  somehow confident that I would find the goose – even if not just then or right there.  But moreso, I truly was already very pleased, because I had followed through on a wish and executed it well – so far.  I was completely alone and completely engaged in my life and a passion for it.

Just after 7:00 a.m. there was enough light to be able to meaningfully start my search through the scope.  Within not more than 5 minutes among the thousands of birds in front of me I found one that raised my heartbeat as it was a goose that was NOT a Cackling Goose and NOT a Greater White Fronted Goose but it had its head turned away and I could not see the tell-tale bi-colored bill that would confirm the ID as a Tundra Bean Goose.  Turn, damn you turn!!  It must have heard me.  It turned and even at 20x magnification in the poor light, I could see the orange marking. Eureka!!!!!  The light was weak.  My ISO was high, the shutter speed slow, but I got a photo.

Tundra Bean Goose – First Photo (ABA Photo 694#)

Tundra Bean Goose First Photo

There was nobody there to share a high five.  Nobody to watch a Snoopy dance.  No congratulations.  On other chases there have often been others or if not, I still gave a shout or did a dance or a jump or a fist pump.  Not this time.  I just savored the moment as deeply as I had any moment.  There was not a need for any outward expression because it was so completely internalized.  This confirmed a really chancy decision and was like the proverbial cherry atop the sundae.  But it was going to get even better.

The goose was resting and I kept my scope on it hoping for better views as the light improved.  About 10 minutes later I heard someone approaching the blind.  When she came in with her birding gear, I asked the almost unnecessary question:  “Would you like to see the goose?”  She beamed.  I lowered the scope and she saw the bill and had a new life bird.  This was the second try for Janet Kelly also.  She had made the 3+hour trip up from Medford, OR earlier in the week on a day the Tundra Bean Goose had been seen by others but not by everyone looking.  She was one of the unlucky ones.  This made up for that.  I was almost as happy for her as I was for myself – almost.

We watched the goose for about 15 minutes and then without any warning it and maybe 2000 other birds took off in a noisy flight and were gone. We had been very fortunate.  We had been at the right place at the right time.  A little bit later and we may have missed it.  I have been in that spot before.  Not more than 5 minutes later, two more birders arrived at the blind and we delivered the words we have all heard and hate more than any others:  “You just missed it!” Our visitors were Bert Filemyr and Casey Weissburg.  To say they are both serious and accomplished birders would be an understatement.  Joining with Laura Keene –  an extremely accomplished and serious birder – they had arrived at the Refuge the day before and had missed the Tundra Bean Goose.  Casey immediately expressed her disappointment and asked which way they had flown.  All we could say was “away”.

Meanwhile Laura Keene had positioned herself at the bridge and this strategy had paid off as a few moments later she texted Casey that she “had the goose!!”.  Casey took off imploring Bert to race along with her.  Let’s just say that there is a significant age difference between the two and as I accompanied Bert running with gear on the icy boardwalk, I felt I had to comment that it was not worth a heart attack.  Bert joined Casey in their rented car and they drove the 1/4+ mile to the bridge where Laura had the Tundra Bean Goose in her scope.  Not the world’s best view but when it raised its head, there was that bi-colored bill.  This was ABA life bird 801 for Laura, and number 748 for Bert.  I don’t know about life birds, but it was ABA number 642 for Casey – this year.  As I said – serious and accomplished birders.  It was wonderful to see and feel their excitement as they found this extremely rare species – a sign of its rarity being that none of them had seen it before.

The Tundra Bean Goose was cooperative in that it remained still, but not so much as it mostly rested with its head tucked down being essentially a lump of brown feathers.  Other birders arrived and we were able to show them the mega rarity.  After more than an hour with an only occasional head lift to show its bill, it joined many other geese and flew off – eventually landing across the road in an even more distant spot.  But in flight, it gave us the best views including it bright orange feet.  It also gave me my best photos.

Tundra Bean Goose Flight Shots

Tundra Bean Goose Flight

Flight in Group

Among the birders to join our group was a father with two young boys and a couple of other young birders.  I would wager that this day will be part of their cherished memories forever.

And I can say the same for me.  A favorite day.  Anyone reading my blogs or talking to me about birding knows that for me birding is that wonderful activity that inserts me in situations where there is the chance to visit interesting places, meet interesting people and see great birds.  There is never a day of birding that does not provide one of these rewards and on days like this, I get all three.  Pretty great!!  And this day it was in spades.  The refuge is not Cascade mountains beautiful, but it is a lovely place and now had given me two days of special attachment.  All of the birds and their movement at the marsh were majestic with the Tundra Bean Goose being as good as it gets.  And how wonderful to share this time and this bird with these folks.

Knowing of her and especially her incredible Big Year in 2016, I had contacted Laura Keene earlier this year as a resource to find contacts in states I would be visiting during my 50/50/50 adventure.  She was gracious and most helpful getting me in touch with someone that I did bird with later.  It was a great treat to meet here in person.  I hope to see her again some day either on her home turf of San Antonio or in the field.

I had not had any previous contact with Bert but had seen his name on Facebook and Ebird.  He is from Philadelphia.  We exchanged “birder cards” and I will contact him for ideas when I will be visiting that area this Spring.  If life is really good, maybe I can join him in the field.

Casey Weissburg describes herself as a nomadic bird biologist living for the love of birds and the natural world.  Her youthful energy, and knowledge of birds, were abundantly clear watching the Tundra Bean Goose.  We have become Facebook friends and I am sure she knows birders out there that may be able to help me in my quest and I hope our paths cross again.

Seeing the Tundra Bean Goose was immensely satisfying.  Sharing the wonderful birding experience with Janet, Bert, Laura, Casey and the young family and others there made it magical.

Final Thoughts and Questions – Why We Chase…

What all is behind our “wild goose chases” and others?

What makes me drive 5  hours from Edmonds to look for a goose in a marsh in Oregon twice in less than a week?

What brings Bert Filemyr from Philadelphia to Seattle to join friend Laura Keene who had flown in from San Antonio and drive 4 and a half hours to to look for a goose in that same marsh, joined by Casey Weissburg who came from I don’t know where?

What moves Janet Kelly to drive 3+ hours from Medford to to look for a goose in that marsh?

What brings us and others – many, many others – to look for “special birds” with “special” defined differently by each searcher – in marshes and sewage treatment plants and forests and deserts and feeders and mudflats and mountains all over the globe.  Why do we travel miles and miles for hours and hours, give up sleep, endure heat, cold, bugs, flat tires, lost communication and miss birthdays and other important dates?

Why do we chase? Why do we chase again and again when too often our chases do not find success – at least in terms of  finding our targets?

  • “Compulsion” is variously defined as “a very strong feeling of wanting to do something repeatedly that is difficult to control” or a “strong and barely controllable emotion” or “any powerful or compelling emotion or feeling”.
  • “Obsession” is variously defined as  “a compulsive preoccupation with an idea or an unwanted feeling or emotion, often accompanied by symptoms of anxiety. – a compulsive, often unreasonable idea or emotion”; or “a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling”; or “an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind”.
  • The American Psychiatric Association defines “Addiction” at least as related to substance abuse as a complex condition, a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequence. People with addiction (severe substance use disorder) have an intense focus on using a certain substance(s), such as alcohol or drugs, to the point that it takes over their life. They keep using alcohol or a drug even when they know it will cause problems.
  • Albert Einstein is widely credited with saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
  • “Passion” is defined as a strong inclination toward a self-defining activity that one likes (or even loves), finds important, and in which they invest time and energy on a regular basis.  Passions are seen as existing in two types: harmonious and obsessive.
  • Love”  – one theory developed by psychologist Robert Sternberg, says there are three components of love: intimacy, passion, and commitment where intimacy encompasses feelings of attachment, closeness, and connection.  Poets may define it differently.

To differing degrees and in different ways, I believe that chases have elements of all of the above.  The definitions I have used for compulsion, obsession and addiction are at least somewhat pejorative if not downright negative.  I think there are other takes on all of them but these potentially negative aspects cannot be ignored and if they are not outweighed, balanced and driven by the far more positive aspects of love and passion, we are possibly in dangerous territory for ourselves, others and even the natural world that we engage.  Our chases are driven by these factors and are not always successful.  It took a while, but I have come to so enjoy the attempt, the pursuit itself, the intersections with people, places and the birds so that I am now at peace with finding my target bird — or not.

And besides, there can be another chase tomorrow…

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Why We Chase…A Wild Goose Chase with a Happy Ending and Self Questioning

  1. Great blog post, Blair, and I’m glad you got your bird! I was visiting Jay Withgott in Portland, he wanted to chase the Nestucca bird, and I was happy to go with him. Again, I did it primarily to get photos, which I did. It was a nice drive and a suspenseful search, but definitely better because we found the bird and better yet because I have a record of the experience that I can return to again and again. I suppose we should also have taken photos of the smiles on each other’s face. I took a photo of my ex wife jumping up and down after I had shown her her first Swallow-tailed Kite in Florida, and I’ll cherish that forever.

    Like

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