By Keith Michael 

Millie is still sleeping off the exertion from her star appearance presenting the Bird of the Year Awards 2020, so I’ll have to give her a pass for this month’s article. I must say that she looks content, curled in her corner by the door with corgi-shaped fur-bunnies snuggled around her. If she rouses, I’ll let you know. A special goose dropped in to NYC during the last week of 2020, though not in time for even an Honorable Mention at the Awards Ceremony. It’s called a Greater White-fronted Goose, and is common either in Midwest North America or in Europe. It’s smaller than our familiar resident chin-strapped Canada Goose, but larger than the diminutive wintering Brant. It’s mostly a warm gray corduroy with bright orange feet and bill. The “white-fronted” moniker is more appropriately a white forehead behind its bill, that gives it some sartorial pizzazz. A runway-model looker it might not be, but as a one-in-a-thousand goose, it deserves accolades: “It’s SOME goose!” 

An NYC birder first spotted it hanging out with several hundred Canada Geese on the ballfields of Randall’s Island. The word got out and soon dozens of birders had made their way by car, bus, bicycle, or on foot to take a gander at this rare gander. (I don’t know if it’s been definitively determined whether this goose is a gander or a hen.) I tried to track it down twice over the end-of-year holidays. Once it was nowhere to be seen under the shadow of the magnificent Hell’s Gate Bridge approach archways (one of NYC’s architectural marvels), but the second time was the charm when it showed me all its moves. Lately, this rare goose and its Canadian pals have been dropping in to the Central Park reservoir to bathe, and for general Duck, Duck, Goose shenanigans.

When a rare (to us) bird shows up, it only means that it’s not supposed to be here. It’s likely just a common bird back home where it’s from. A rare bird could be from anywhere—north, south, east or west. Snowy Owls that thrill everyone when they appear in the winter are common to northern Canada. The Couch’s Kingbird that held court in the West Village between Thanksgiving and Christmas 2014 should have been spreading its yellow sunniness along the western coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The rainbow-hued Painted Bunting superstar in Prospect Park, Brooklyn during December 2015 calls Florida and Texas home. Those winter sea-faring birds, Razorbills and Dovekies, that show up along our coastline are more likely to be seen hundreds of miles east in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. And if there are hurricane gusts? Get out your telescopes for windblown birds from the tropics! 

A rare White-fronted Goose takes flight with its Canada Goose pals on Randall’s Island. Photo by Keith Michael.

The moment one of these showstoppers hits the ether of Twitter, eBird, Facebook, or good ol’ email, a certain crowd of birders start packing their gear to “chase it.” Simultaneously, speculation is unleashed, “How did it get here?” There’s always the cynical strain of theories conjuring up the unnatural help that it could have received in transit to NYC. Or there’s the optimistic contingent who just like to be impressed that it’s here and indulge in the novelistic wherewithal and happenstance that could have delivered it thousands of miles from home.

Look at a map of the top of the globe (go ahead Google it, you know you want to—it actually looks sort of like Australia.) Then think about being a goose summering near the Arctic Circle (and why wouldn’t you want to think about that scenario?) It might not be such a stretch to imagine getting in with the wrong crowd and ending up here rather than Scotland or Des Moines.

Geese are so chatty while they’re flying, supposedly to maintain their energy-saving V flight formations. My take on it is that this goose just got absorbed by his own story: “Time to fly south? Cool, dude, mind if I tag along your airstream? Wasn’t it a great summer? I ate grass. Then there was that bay to paddle around in. Some canoodling with the wife. That grass was delicious. The kids grew up okay. Fast. Wifey mostly took care of that. I wonder where they are now. Did I tell you about the scrumptious grass we found at the top of that hillock? I brought along this Fly Away wings-free selfie stick so that I can catch all my ‘grammable vacation moments surfing the air. You guys’ V is totally awesome. Hey, a little more to your right. Over the shoulder. Perfect against the setting sun. The grass was excellent. Yada, yada, yada. Whoa are we here already? Wait, is this New York City? Nice grass. Hey, I usually spend the winter in St. Louis. Oh well. Did I tell you about my one winter in Amsterdam? Crazy.” 

Okay, that was a flight of fantasy, but as well as seeing all our neighborhood birds, I do look forward to mixing it up with that next NYC rarity treat. Hearing the word “treat” Millie looks up at me. But not seeing any action, she harrumphs back to her long winter’s nap.

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