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Something New [Novelties]

March 14, 2011

It’s only natural, I think, to notice new things, especially when they occur where you spend a lot of time. Put an extra bottle of wine in our rack and I’ll find it before entering the kitchen. Sweep the garage and I’ll think I’m in the wrong house. Move a few sticks from the brush pile to the fire pit and our backyard loses all balance.

That last example, while generally being true, is also meant to say I spend a lot of time in our yard, and as a birder, a lot of that time is spent looking at whatever birds happen to be around. I track them by entering them into eBird, so I know the Snow Goose flocks I’ve been counting for the last few days are right on time. Though they may be seen anytime during the month, the big peak usually passes overhead during the second week of March, when the lion and lamb are still wrestling to control our weather.

Tons — literally and figuratively – of geese flew over last night, a flight that continued this morning. But there was a stranger among them, a bird I haven’t recorded from our yard before: a “blue-morph” Snow Goose.

Snow geese, including a blue goose

Most Snow geese are are white underneath with black wingtips, but this blue morph (second bird from the front) shows quite a bit of bluish-gray.

Before I go any further, I apologize for the darkness of that image. I didn’t think to change my camera settings when it dawned on me that I should be taking photographs. Click on the image for a larger, and hopefully clearer, version.

As most of you likely know, Snow geese come in two morphs, white and blue, which are strikingly different and easy to recognize in the field. As far as I can tell, this is not only the first blue-morph bird that I’ve identified from the yard this year, it’s the first I’ve recorded from our yard, period. That seems a little weird because although most Snow geese are white, some 10% of the eastern population are blue.  I’ve watched thousands of Snow geese, likely hundreds of thousands if not more, pass overhead throughout the past decade, and if every tenth bird (on average) is blue, why haven’t I seen them?  Do birds of a feather really flock together?  I don’t think that’s right, on coastal Virginia I’ve found blue geese mingling in with predominantly white-plumaged flocks.  Most of the Snow geese, come to think of it, pass over under the cover of darkness, maybe that’s when the blue geese arrive in our area. Most likely, maybe I’m simply not paying as close attention as I think I am, but that goes against my premise that novelty stands out.

OK, I hear you. Some of you are calling me out on another front, saying, “Mike, wait, that’s not even a blue goose!” and you’re right, it’s an intermediate.

It turns out there are as many as 7 recognizable plumage types in adults, leaving behind any notion of a cut-and-dry, black-and-white (or white-and-blue) separation. On the whiter shade of pale you have “Type 1” birds, which are pure white with at least seven black primaries, yielding the classic white-body-black-wingtip Snow Goose look. “Type 7” birds, the pure blue morphs, are on the other end of the spectrum with all gray underparts with small amounts of white or pale around the unmentionables. OK, I’ll mention the area: around the vent and between the legs and tail. (Don’t you feel dirty for just reading that?)

The bird in the photo clearly doesn’t fit into either category (again, apologies for the poor quality of the photo). As near as I can tell, this bird is a “Type 5” based on how far the dark plumage extends onto the underparts from the neck — in this case, back to the sternum. A “Type 4” bird would be dark only to where the neck joins the body while “Type 6” birds are dark all the way to the legs. In case you’re wondering, the most common intermediate form is “Type 3,” in which wings, back, and flanks are mainly dark, but underparts remain white.

So, if I’m right, I can add a “Type 5” bird to my yard list, but feel free to offer your thoughts — am I right? Regardless, you can bet I’ll be watching more carefully for the other five “Types.”

Of course, more examples of blue-morph Snow geese can be found online.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Carolyn permalink
    March 17, 2011 16:16

    Tuesday several friends and I hit the jackpot at the mucklands near Savannah with thousands of snow geese and more Tundra Swans than I have ever seen. As they were pointing out some blue geese I told my friends about the types of snow geese and tongue in cheek proceeded to call out the types by number. I don’t think they were so much impressed but rather amused by my pronouncements. Thanks for the elucidation!!

    • March 17, 2011 20:23

      Hi, Carolyn – glad you were able to witness the spectacle at the mucklands, from what I’ve been reading it was really tremendous. I’m afraid any trip I’m able to plan will be after they’ve all departed for the tundra. And I’m especially glad you were able to impress and/or amuse your friends with something you read here! I figure facts like those are going to come in handy in two specific situations: when attempting to impress/amuse (or even not trying, but still succeeding), and perhaps more importantly when you find yourself battling Watson on Jeopardy! or wanting to become a millionaire.

      Best of luck on whichever game show you might wind up on, and thanks for reading — and especially for sharing your experience!

  2. March 18, 2011 09:24

    “Put an extra bottle of wine in our rack and I’ll find it before entering the kitchen. Sweep the garage and I’ll think I’m in the wrong house. ”

    i totally get that!

    • March 18, 2011 12:41

      Unfortunately, neither happens on any regular basis. But I’m always hoping!

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