A Wild Goose Chase

Geese on the UMass campus pond

Wednesday, December 7, 2:00 PM. Shoes: check. Jacket: check. Keys: check. Grab the binoculars. Grab the cameras. Go.

I flew out of the house like I’d been shot from a gun—a man on a mission: get my son from school and race 15 miles to the UMass campus pond, a half-hour trip that I planned to shave by about a third. There, with a little luck, we’d meet up with the rarest bird to ever grace the University’s lettered grounds. Out of nowhere, a Pink-footed Goose had appeared, and we were setting out to find it.

I’d been alerted to the bird the day before. The call had come in at 9:26 AM. I was in the kitchen, and my cell phone rang—an occurrence infrequent enough to be noteworthy, as I use it mostly for emergencies and eBird, and very few people have the number. One of those who does is Larry Therrien, a good friend and the most accomplished and committed birder I know. He calls the cell for only two reasons: to suggest an ice cream run or report an unusual sighting. It was Larry; I picked up. With no preamble, he launched in. “I’m looking at a Pink-footed Goose in the fields off Stockbridge Road right now.”

Half an hour later, I was on the bird. It had settled in with a group of about 600 Canada Geese, and was working the edge of a farm field, foraging here and there. I got wonderful looks, but the combination of distance and lighting didn’t lend itself to photography—and while I don’t have to photograph every bird I see, I’ve been trying to capture an image of a Pink-footed Goose for years. Also, I didn’t have my son Aidan with me, and I knew he’d want to see it as well. I’d be visiting this bird again, and I had a hunch about where to look. We’d been waiting for a Pink-footed Goose to discover the pond at the University of Massachusetts, and something told me this bird was it.

Snow Goose

Snow Goose, UMass campus pond

That evening, my suspicion was confirmed. Someone reported a large group of geese leaving the field and flying east to UMass; the Pink-footed Goose was with them. Aidan and I made our plan: after school the next day, we’d try for the bird. I prayed it would stick around for that long.

Wednesday afternoon we hit campus, not sure what we’d find. As we made our way across the horseshoe drive in front of the University’s Fine Arts Center, a lone goose flew out over the building towards us—more slender than a Canada Goose, with pointed wings and a faster, stiffer wing beat. Something told me to give it a better look, but I continued on, anxious to get to the pond where, I hoped, the Pink-footed Goose awaited. My son, however—who, at 16 is a far better birder than I (or, in fact, most birders I’ve met) and often exhibits more patience than any teenage boy reasonably should—stopped and put his binoculars on it. “Dad,” he said, “that’s it.”

We stopped and stared, watching it circle around and back towards the pond, away from us. This was not good; there was a very real chance that we’d missed it, that it had been and gone. I held my breath, watching it, hoping for a sign that we weren’t too late. A moment later, I got it. The goose headed directly over the pond, circled back, and drooped its wings, descending below the Fine Arts Center, out of sight. Its target could only be the pond. From a dead standstill, we broke into a run. We’d waited years for this moment. This was our chance, and we weren’t going to miss it.

If you’ve never visited the University of Massachusetts’ Amherst campus and seen the pond yourself, you’re probably wondering what the big deal is. After all, it’s in the middle of a bustling university, passed by thousands of students a day. How good can it be?

Gadwall

Gadwall,

Very. In fact, if you’re looking for an uncommon water bird, it’s arguably the best place in western Mass to be. At 800 feet long and around 200 feet across at its widest point (considerably narrower at most others), over the years this little pond has hosted a dizzying array: Snow and Ross’ Geese, Northern Pintails, Gadwall, Cackling Geese, Wood Ducks, American Coots, Brant, Greater White-fronted Geese, Horned and Red-necked Grebes, Hooded and Common Mergansers, Green-winged Teal… the list goes on. It’s protected from hunting, so the birds can rest and eat in safety. And it’s ideal for photography: The views are incredible; there isn’t a bad seat in the house. If I was going to break my drought of Pink-footed Goose photographs, it would happen here. But I’d have to find it first.

Cackling Goose

Cackling Goose

When searching for a rare bird on the campus pond, the typical procedure is this: take up position at one end of the pond, scan through anywhere from several hundred to perhaps a thousand Canada Geese, and try to find the one that stands out. Repeat as necessary until you locate the target bird. The amount of time this takes varies with the number of Canada Geese present and, more importantly, the identity of the bird you’re looking for. An adult Snow Goose stands out like a Cardinal in snow; pulling a Cackling Goose out from a mass of Canadas, however, brings to mind needles and haystacks. The Pink-footed falls somewhere in the middle: Smaller than the Canada Geese with a chocolate-brown head and neck, it should be fairly obvious; as long as there weren’t too many Canadas, it shouldn’t take us too long.

As we rounded the corner of the Fine Arts Center, the pond came into view, and my heart sank. Aside from a scattering of Mallards on the water and three Canada Geese along the bank, it was entirely empty. This was a very bad sign: In all my years of birding the campus pond, rare waterfowl have always been attended by healthy numbers of Canada Geese. I’ve never seen one on its own. Ever. Somehow, even though we saw the goose drop towards the water, it must’ve taken back to the air. Somehow, we missed it.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose

Or so I thought. Aidan, though, was undaunted, and in short order—once again displaying superior skill, patience, and attention to detail—he located the bird swimming alone on the pond. And it was beautiful.

In an area renowned for producing uncommon waterfowl, this was the rarest of the rare. Pink-footed Geese breed in the far north—Greenland, Iceland, and Svalbard (north of the European mainland)—and winter in northwest Europe and western Denmark, only appearing casually in the United States. For one to show up anywhere is an event. For one to show up at the campus pond was a miracle. Aidan and I spent the next hour watching the goose paddle about and wander along the bank, foraging and displaying its namesake feet—alternately jubilant and transfixed. We were witnessing something truly special, and we were well aware of our good fortune.

But then we were hit with the completely unexpected. The goose had returned to the water and was swimming about when a flock of 14 Canada Geese flew in, circling the pond and calling. The Pink-footed Goose made three loud honks in response and then, as the Canadas left, it took off from the water and followed them away. It seemed for all the world like the Canadas had been looking for their lost cousin and, finding the Pink-footed, came to collect it. And in joining them, the Pink-footed seemed happy. It was once again with its companions—still a stranger in a strange land, but no longer alone.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose

As humans, we’re constantly cautioned not to anthropomorphize, told that it’s a mistake to endow other animals with thoughts and emotions. I believe this philosophy is wrong. The real mistake, I feel, is in assuming that other animals have none. If we were speaking of human beings, the narrative of a lost individual being found by a group and then happily rejoining them wouldn’t even be questioned. It would be obvious, accepted: Of course that’s what was going on. What else could it have been? But other animals don’t do this, we think. They can’t show this level of emotion, connection. We tell ourselves this again and again, and believing it allows us to visit unspeakable horrors on them. Why care what we destroy, what we kill, if they don’t? Animals don’t feel the pain of loss when we reduce their homes to ash, don’t grieve or mourn when another of their kind dies or falls victim to mankind’s callous hand. They are, after all, only animals.

But so are we. At its root, the mistake we make is not in assuming that other animals aren’t like us, but that we are somehow fundamentally different from them—that we, with our advanced capacity for thought and emotion, are elevated above them, and that in our lofty position, we are insulated from the destruction we sow upon them and their world. The realization that we aren’t may, I fear, come too late, after we’ve carried the world beyond the breaking point and have lost the means to save ourselves from the consequences of our arrogance.

Maybe all is not lost, though. Maybe my son’s generation will get it right, will tread more gently upon the Earth than those who’ve come before, will embrace the reality that we are kin to all life on Earth, not just to those who walk on two legs. Maybe they’ll teach us all to do the same. And perhaps we’ll be wise enough to listen.

Myself, I hold fast to hope. After all, if a Pink-footed Goose can show up on this little pond, anything’s possible.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose