I have a love/hate relationship with Ottawa and its birding scene. Love, because the many excellent local birders seem to turn up more than their share of delectable rare birds. Hate, because the drive there is rather long, and most rarities seem to require an unsuccessful twitch first, followed later by a successful one.
The Ottawa Birding Area has a long and storied history. Many of Ontario's top naturalists and birders cut their teeth alongside the Ottawa River and throughout the surrounding area. As a result, a not-insignificant number of really rare bird species have been reported from eastern Ontario. Just in recent years the general area has been the location for a few provincial first records: Barnacle Goose, Pink-footed Goose, Little Egret, and recently, a bean-goose.
The story of the subject bird, the bean-goose, begins across the border at Masson, Quebec on November 8, 2020. Rod Dubois, a Quebec birder, first spotted the unusual goose at the Masson settling ponds and quickly put the word out. Many local birders made it to the ponds in time, but in the mid-afternoon it left the ponds, flying south into Ontario. The bird was quickly discovered feeding in some corn stubble fields south of Cumberland, Ontario. In the days since, the goose has continued to frequent the many fields south of Cumberland. However, it moves around regularly and is not always easy to pin down. One of the more reliable locations in the last six days has been the Nolan Quarry, located in Prescott-Russell.
I first searched for this bird on November 11 with David Szmyr, but we struck out despite a fairly thorough attempt. Consistent sightings from the Nolan Quarry from November 13-16 provided enough motivation for me to want to try again. And so that is what I did, arriving at dawn with Lev Frid on November 17.
Typically, the bean-goose had been observed roosting on the quarry at dawn and dusk, as well as occasionally during the mid-day hours. Lev and I were the first ones on site, followed shortly by other birders. Our confidence was high since all of the other oft-reported geese, including a Ross's Goose, a hybrid Canada x Snow Goose, and a Barnacle Goose, were accounted for early on. We also noted several Cackling Geese and a flock of seven Snow Geese.
I should mention the Barnacle Goose briefly. If it was not for the presence of the bean-goose, the Barnacle Goose would be the star of the show. This species seems to be appearing more regularly in Ontario in recent years, though it is still a notable rarity. Barnacle Geese can be found periodically in flocks of migrant Canada Geese along the Atlantic coast of North America, and one will occasionally find itself in far eastern Ontario. This was only my third time viewing a Barnacle Goose in Ontario.
Eventually, most of the geese left the Nolan Quarry to feed in the surrounding farmland. Lev and I expanded our search radius and scanned the many fields. We re-found the Barnacle Goose and Ross's Goose (as a bonus, getting them for our Ottawa lists) but the bean-goose remained unaccounted for. We were getting worried! A call from Jeremy Bensette dramatically changed our mindset, however. A group of birders at the Nolan Quarry had spotted the bean-goose! Moments later, we all had the bird in our scopes.
As you can tell from all of the photos in this blog post, all of the interesting geese were too distant for good photos (the bean-goose included). But through our scopes, the view was reasonable enough, affording a thorough study of the bird.
You may be wondering why I am referring to this bird with the generic "bean-goose" moniker. That is because the birding community is not 100% sure what taxon this bird actually belongs to.
Here in North America, we consider the five subspecies of bean-geese to constitute two species: Taiga Bean-Goose and Tundra Bean-Goose. In Europe, the species have not been split and it is simply called Bean Goose, a species with five subspecies. I am not going to get into the details of all of this, other to say that determining what a "species" is, is difficult! Ultimately, the idea of "species" is a human construct to help us put things into neat little boxes, when evolution doesn't exactly work that way.
I have heard some rather convincing arguments that this bird is from one of western populations of Tundra Bean-Goose, but others have argued that it is a Taiga Bean-Goose. It seems that the only thing anyone can agree on is that it is not a middendorffi Taiga Bean-Goose. Personally, I have not formed a strong opinion one way or another but I look forward to digging into the literature in the upcoming weeks. Fortunately some good photos have been obtained of this bird, much better photos than mine, which will assist in figuring out its identify. Regardless of what label we slap on this bird, it is the first bean-goose to be documented from within Ontario.
Lev and I continued on with our day with a bit more bounce in our step. We noted Bohemian Waxwings in several locations, though none alighted in nearby trees to allow a close study. Rough-legged Hawks were also plentiful enough, and we twitched some Greater White-fronted Geese for our 7th goose species of the day. Unfortunately, with eBird being down we were unable to see if there had been any Brants reported recently, to search for on the drive home. That would have been goose species #8.
We made one final stop on the way back, at Thickson's Point where a Red Phalarope had spent the afternoon. Our dusk arrival was just a bit too late since the phalarope had flown out to the lake only twenty minutes earlier, but the two Purple Sandpipers were still present and capped the day off nicely.