WILLAMETTE VALLEY - As the weather has cooled and the days shortened, many birds that nest in Oregon and Washington have moved on.
Warblers, tanagers, flycatchers, and other insect-eating birds are now in Central and South America. The concept of birds flying south for the winter is a familiar one but for many birds that nest in the high arctic, the Pacific Northwest IS south. With the arrival of cooler, wetter days come approximately 250,000 geese that spend the winter months in the Willamette Valley.
While the area has always hosted wintering populations of geese, in recent decades many birds that used to winter in central California have shifted their range northward into the Willamette Valley. Large flocks of geese can be found in fields, wetlands, and urban duck ponds from October through April, providing fun viewing for wildlife watchers and hardcore birders alike.
The vast majority of birds in the winter flocks are Cackling Geese, followed in abundance by Canada Geese, Snow Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, and the occasional Ross’s Goose, Brant, and Emperor Goose.
WHICH GOOSE IS WHICH?
Cackling Geese look like miniature Canada Geese, and were only recently given full species status. Two races of Cackling Goose are common in the Valley. The Cackling race of Cackling Goose is recognized by its short neck, stubby bill, dark breast, and high yelping call.
Taverner’s Cackling Goose is slightly larger, with a longer neck, steep forehead, and pale breast.
Taverner's Cackling Geese
Three races of Canada Geese occur in the valley. The Western Canada Goose is the largest, and is the only goose that nests in the area. It is recognized by its large size, long neck and pale breast.
The Dusky Canada Goose is a rare race whose entire population winters in northwest Oregon and southwest Washington. It is smaller than the Western, and is chocolate brown in color.
The Lesser Canada Goose is the same size as Taverner’s Cackling Goose, making identification difficult. Lessers have slightly longer thinner necks than Taverner’s and a more sloping profile. This photo shows two Western Canada Geese behind a Lesser Canada Goose.
Lesser Canada Geese
Snow Geese are easy to identify. They are all white except for their black wing tips. Ross’s Geese look like miniature Snow Geese with short stubby bills.
Greater White-fronted Geese are pale brown with black speckles on their bellies. They are most common during spring and autumn migration, but small numbers winter in the area.
Brants are normally found along the coast, but a few make it to the Valley each year. Look for their black heads and necks with a pale necklace.
Emperor Geese normally spend the winter in the Aleutian Islands, but a few make it to Oregon in winter, causing quite a stir in the birding community.
BEST SPOTS FOR GOOSE WATCHING
The Willamette Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex was established in the 1960s to protect habitat for the rare Dusky Canada Goose. But of course, when you protect habitat for one species, others will benefit as well. The complex consists of three refuges:
William L. Finley NWR is located along OR 99W, about 11 miles south of Corvallis.
Ankeny NWR is 12 miles south of Salem. Take I-5 exit 243 to Wintel Road.
Baskett Slough NWR is near the intersection of OR 22 and OR 99W, west of Salem.
The Sauvie Island Wildlife Management Area is located just northwest of Portland. Hunting is allowed in this area, so the best wildlife watching is often in February after the hunting season has ended.
The Ridgefield NWR is located near Ridgefield, WA. Take I-5 exit 14 to Ridgefield, and then follow the signs to the refuge.
In order to minimize the disturbance to the goose flocks, and to keep them on the refuges and off of farmers’ fields, much of the area in the refuges listed above are closed to public access from October through mid-April. But even during the closed season, there are ample opportunities to view the geese from the roads and from certain trails.
It isn’t necessary to go far afield to enjoy the wintering goose flocks. Any urban duck pond or riverside park can attract geese. In Portland, the best sites for a quick family outing include Crystal Springs Rhododendron Gardens and Westmoreland Park. Fernhill Wetlands, just south of Forest Grove, and Jackson Bottoms, just south of Hillsboro, are two spots with lots of geese and easy access.
You don’t have to be an avid bird watcher to appreciate the Willamette Valley’s wintering geese. The sight and sound of these immense flocks will brighten anyone’s spirits, even on the most dreary winter day.
John Rakestraw is the author of Birding Oregon. He writes about nature for a variety of magazines, teaches classes on bird identification, and works as a birding guide. You can view his blog at http://johnrakestraw.net.