Dr. Joan Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

Christmas Goose: Snow or Canada?

Living in central New York, and only a few miles from the Utica Marsh, the honking and flying V’s (not this) of the Canada goose are a common sight in the Fall, and perhaps it’s only a mild exaggeration to say they’re more common than red or yellow maple leaves. Early on Saturday mornings I can be found with a few friends doing our weekly long run along a canal trail that borders the marsh. It is nothing for us to see several hundred or a thousand of these honkers, not to mention numerous ducks and the random great blue heron. Once, two years ago, we came across a group of perhaps two hundred snow geese in an adjacent field. Utica is on the western edge of a snow goose migratory flyway which is centered on the Champlain valley, dividing New York from Vermont. We see them from time to time, but they’re not nearly as common as their chin-strapped cousins. Thus my surprise (and confusion) this past Christmas.

Very early on Christmas morning my wife and I headed out to visit her family in western New York. Around 8:00 AM we passed through the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge which is north of the Finger Lakes, and perhaps 90 miles west of Utica. This place is positively teeming with waterfowl and it’s a rare Fall day to pass through and not see Canada geese. As we were approaching the main section, my wife noted that there were a number of large V’s in the air. In fact, I’d say we saw somewhere around 10 large formations, each with perhaps 200-plus individuals. I had never seen so many geese in the air at the same time in such a short distance. As striking as the volume of birds, my wife also noted that they were white and proclaimed “Snow geese!” Normally, I would agree, but as we were so far west, I assumed something else was at play. The sun was very low behind us and was breaking through some patchy clouds. I immediately deduced that what we were seeing was the sunlight bouncing straight back at us from the white bellies of Canada geese. These geese seemed a little small though, and their necks were a bit shorter than usual. As we approached one low-flying flock, I looked up through the sunroof to see if I could spot any markings. Instead of the tell-tale white chinstrap circling a black head, I could clearly make out black wingtips gracing an otherwise white underbelly. Unfortunately, we went by them too quickly to get much detail beyond that single observation.

And so, I am stuck. That under-view says “snow goose”, but what were so many of them doing so far west? It might be that most of the geese we saw were Canada geese with a strong reflection of sunlight and we just happened to drive underneath one smaller group of snow geese. Maybe there’s another goose that has similar under-markings to the snow goose, perhaps a variant of the Canada goose. Perhaps the snow goose flyway is expanding westward (I had read this somewhere a few years ago but can’t seem to locate the article). I don’t know. In any case, it was a startling and lovely sight.


  1. #1 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    December 27, 2006

    Maybe they were ivory-billed woodpeckers.

  2. #2 Daniel
    December 27, 2006

    There’s nothing unusual about snow geese being in the Montezuma area – a great many migrate through there during spring and fall, and still a significant number stick around. Granted, the resident population is somewhat lesser compared to canada geese, but they’re still fairly numerous – especially near Montezuma, which is such a great marshy/wetland area that it attracts a great diversity of birds from all over.

    What was really neat was seeing about 10,000 snow geese in one large group, near Aurora, NY (a 20-30 minute drive SE of Montezuma), in 2004. They were in migration, and all resting for about a week at one large pond there.

    Other nice ones to look for on occaision in that area are the Sandhill Cranes, Tundra Swans, White Pelicans, Eared and Horned Grebes, and birds of prey such as Bald Eagles, Merlins, etc.

  3. #3 Daniel
    December 27, 2006

    Another interesting article on Montezuma habitat and wildlife.

  4. #4 Jim
    December 27, 2006

    Thanks for that info. I had not seen snow geese in Montezuma before, and to compound it, I distinctly remember that the article I read about their migration indicated that the western edge of the Adirondacks (i.e., Utica) was at the extreme western edge of their flyway, and had only recently expanded that far due to their numbers rebounding over the past century. Hence, my “What are snow geese doing here?” reaction.

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