Wild Goose Chase | Global Warming Solutions

Rob Moir
5 min readSep 1, 2023

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On January 1, the Sunday morning paper reported a white-fronted goose was seen off Argilla Road in Ipswich, and I was on my way on the chase. This is a brown goose with a pink bill surrounded by white feathers. The scientific name Anser albifrons is more apt, meaning goose with a white forehead, for it’s just a splash of white on the face.

White-fronted geese breed in the Arctic. Four well-defined population units breed in Western Alaska: Bristol Bay, Cook Inlet, and tundra or mid-continent populations. Tundra white-fronted geese fly from the Canadian Arctic south through Illinois to Arkansas for the winter.

The Greenland white-fronted goose also leaves the largest island in North America to winter in Scotland and Ireland.

It’s a mystery. The goose in Ipswich either crossed the continent, flying East over the Appalachian Mountains, or it crossed the ocean, the Labrador Sea, and the Gulf of Maine.

A Greenland white-fronted goose has likely come to Argilla Road in Ipswich because a northern lapwing was seen nearby. This is a striking black and white plover with flecks of green on the back, an elegant shorebird with a crested plume of two black feathers. The northern lapwing is a Eurasian bird breeds in Finland and Siberia’s Arctic. Lapwings winter to the south in Scotland and is the national bird of Ireland. Stormy weather likely separated from the skein and carried a white-fronted goose and a lapwing across the ocean to the windswept shores of Ipswich.

Stalking one goose in January may be quixotic, like looking for a needle in a haystack. I was hopeful because a goose is a big bird. White-fronted geese are more social than most, for unlike other geese, young geese with adult plumage stay with their parents for two and a half years. I hoped to find the goose foraging with noisy Canada Geese. The easiest way to find a rare bird is to find the clutch of bird watchers with spotting scopes on tripods and bazooka cameras.

Looking for a sociable brown goose in a flock of Canada geese, I drove down Argilla Road past forests and slowed down when the land opened up with fields. Where grassy fields tumbled down to salt marsh behind dunes, there was a crowd of cars but no geese, not Canadian or brown. The cars were lined up to enter Cranes Beach. I turned around, retraced my goose route up Argilla Road to no avail, and drove north to the Merrimack River and Plum Island to look for other snowbirds that had flown south for the winter.

It was still the best wild goose chase, absent a white-fronted goose.

In the Merrimack River were long-tailed ducks with cryptic black and white plumage. In the waters by Plum Island were red-breasted mergansers, hooded mergansers, eider ducks, and goldeneye ducks. Far out on the salt marsh was one snowy owl, looking like an all-white milk carton with a flat top. I was told earlier in the day a peregrine falcon had the audacity to swoop down on the snowy owl. The falcon, once called duck hawk, may have mistaken the owl for a snow goose.

Loch Gruinart, Islay, Scotland, had 1,000s of barnacle geese with white underwing and dozens of white-fronted geese. Photo R. Moir

Reflecting on this chase, I recalled the privilege of meeting Greenland white-fronted geese while in Scotland, attending the UN two-week climate change conference in Glasgow. I took a ferry over the water westward to Islay. Islay is a Scottish island north of Ireland with the highest percentage (70%) of grasslands, mostly barley fields, as well as salt marsh, bogs, and fens. Thus, Islay is the best place in Scotland for migrating geese and whisky distilleries, where the numbers of geese and distilleries are unsurpassed. Located closest to the fields of geese, I favored Islay’s farm distillery, Kilchoman. The only distillery serving lunch in November made it easy to raise a dram of Loch Gorm to the geese.

Loch Gruinart has the most geese and the best bird blind. I drove down the embankment onto a road running between fields and stopped the car for thousands of raucous barnacle geese that swirled like a flung magic carpet to land on a barley stubble field. Fields and wetlands further away were also with geese. Seventy percent of the world’s Greenland barnacle geese (37,000) winter on Islay.

The winter Greenland white-fronted goose population increased in number during the 1980s and 1990s. Then they declined 47% in 16 years to 19,000 individuals by 2015. The geese mostly winter at Islay and the Wexford Slobs, the lowest lands in Ireland. Islay geese were hit hard, with a 70% reduction to under 4,000 geese. Meanwhile, the goose population at the Wexford Slobs remained stable.

The Greenland white-fronted goose is listed as an endangered species. Yet, despite the challenges, there has been growth in Greenland white-fronted geese from 19,000 in 2015 to well over 22,000 today.

The white-fronted geese of the Pacific and Continental flyways in the Western U.S. are doing very well. These geese are listed as a species of least concern. For the 1 million to 2.5 million tundra white-fronts that winter in Arkansas and Louisiana, success is not due just to the bounty of America. Like their Scottish brethren, to survive, these geese used their smarts to learn from observation, trial and error, to communicate, and to plan ahead. When rice crops failed in Texas Gulf Coast marshes, southward-flying white-fronted geese flew instead to wet rice fields on the Mississippi River.

Once you get to know them, white-fronted geese have taught us much about how to thrive during shifting and worsening conditions. The geese planned ahead, chose where to forage the next day, and then flew at night to roost nearby to make the most of the limited day length.

The geese prepared for changing circumstances by eating a great variety of grasses in addition to the abundant barley and root crops. They foraged in a great diversity of habitats, fields and bogs, wet meadows, and tidal flats. The geese were opportunistic, moving north earlier to where there was more daylight. They found a new food in managed hay meadows when traditional foods were frozen. Always on the move, white-fronted geese are itinerant. Geese never stay too long to threaten the resources, are open-minded to try new foods, forage in new places, and are savvy about what is best to eat before traveling long distances.

For us, a wild goose chase or stopping to watch wildlife can be most informative and rewarding. With clarion calls, we too, should seize the day and live it while we can.

Posted on January 13, 2023.

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Rob Moir

Rob Moir is writing environmental nonfiction and writes for the Ocean River Institute and the Global Warming Solutions IE-PAC newsletter.