The great Colorado Pink-footed Goose of 2018-19

Chasing rare birds that other birders report is a sport I have only a mild interest in, but when a convenient opportunity presents itself, it is neat to be able to study a bird I might not otherwise get a chance to see without significant travel expense. When a Pink-footed Goose – a bird never before reported in Colorado – was reported just minutes away from where I live on December 11, 2018, it was too exciting an opportunity to pass up. After a short and literal wild goose chase, I saw and photographed the Pink-footed Goose a few hours after it was first reported near Weld County Road 7 just outside of Longmont, Colorado, and thus added a new species to my life list.

Pink-footed Goose (center) swims among a group of Canada and Cackling Geese. Milavec Reservoir, Weld County, Colorado, January 13, 2019. Photo ©2019 Sarah Spotten. Macaulay Library ML136445501.

In my short experience in the incredible modern Internet-based birding world of the late 2010s, most birds that are rare for this area don’t seem to stick around too long (there are plenty of birders out there searching and reporting back every day). But “Pink,” as it is now affectionately known by some of us birders that keep showing up to see it, has parked itself at one location, Milavec Reservoir in Weld County, Colorado, for nearly seven weeks as of January 30, 2019 (the last confirmed report on eBird is from January 26) . In that time, I’ve been to visit it a total of six times, often while attempting to see another rarity, such as a Barnacle Goose (which has only been at the reservoir a couple of times since it was first reported there, and which I did finally manage to see on one visit, long enough to nickname it “Barney”), and a Long-tailed Duck (which has been continuing for over two months at Milavec, and yet which still eludes me).

Barnacle Goose swimming on Milavec Reservoir, Weld County, Colorado, January 15, 2019. Photo ©2019 Sarah Spotten. Macaulay Library ML135807391.

The Colorado Pink-footed Goose, and to a lesser extent the Colorado Barnacle Goose, have been topics of interesting discussions regarding provenance on the Colorado Field Ornithologists‘ message board and Facebook group, and have offered a window into the process of reviewing local rare bird records. Both birds, if they are wild, are a long way from home. Neither bird belongs in North America: according to eBird data, they are normally mainly found in Europe, Iceland, the Norwegian Arctic island of Svalbard, and part of eastern Greenland. For any waterfowl that is rare for an area, we must consider the possibility that they are not actually wild birds, but escapes from zoos or private collections. While Barnacle Geese are uncommon but regular in North American private waterfowl collections, the Pink-footed Goose is almost unheard of in captivity. Neither the Colorado Pink-footed Goose nor the Colorado Barnacle Goose show any evidence of captivity – neither is banded, pinioned, or tattooed, and both geese have both halluxes (hind toes) intact on each foot (removal of the hallux on the right foot is another method waterfowl keepers use to mark migratory waterfowl as captive birds). However, the absence of all of these marks of captivity still doesn’t guarantee that the birds are, in fact, wild.

Pink-footed Goose preening while standing on ice at Milavec Reservoir, Weld County, Colorado, January 15, 2019. Photo ©2019 Sarah Spotten. Macaulay Library ML135806961.

UPDATE 01/31/2019: It seems I may have been mistaken that the Colorado Bird Records Committee had already voted not to accept the Barnacle Goose or the Pink-footed Goose on the state list of naturally occurring birds. Their review of these two records may take a few more months. If accepted, these would be the first records of the two species in Colorado. Thanks to Carl Bendorf for the correction! In the end, the Colorado Bird Records Committee voted, conservatively, not to accept the record of either the Pink-footed Goose or the Barnacle Goose on the list of birds known to have naturally occurred in Colorado. This decision may be revisited later on if evidence of a pattern of occurrence for these birds develops in Colorado in the future. The CBRC’s decision has not at all diminished my enjoyment in getting to see and study these birds in the wild, an opportunity I likely will not have again for a very long time, if ever. Thanks for stopping by this year and brightening up our winter days, Pink and Barney!

“Oh, this pink foot is what you came to see, right?” Pink-footed Goose at Milavec Reservoir, Weld County, Colorado, January 15, 2019. Photo ©2019 Sarah Spotten. Macaulay Library ML135806981.

References:

  • eBird. 2019. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York. Available: http://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: January 30, 2019).