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Rare goose makes stop in Iowa
Bird-watching: Tundra bean goose spotted near Lamoni, a first for Iowa
Brandon Caswell - correspondent
Jan. 19, 2023 12:39 pm, Updated: Jan. 20, 2023 11:10 am
While largely a sea of agricultural fields, Iowa has recorded an astonishing 432 species of birds.
Of those species on the official Iowa list, 211 species have nested within the state.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Iowa’s official state bird list grew substantially. This was due to the construction of major reservoirs in central Iowa. Even today, many of Iowa’s new bird records come from Saylorville and Red Rock reservoirs.
It is always an exciting time for bird-watchers when a new state record is found. People will drive hours to get a new bird on their state list. Sometimes incredibly rare birds will draw people from around an entire region, some from even further out.
What will most likely be Iowa’s 433rd species was discovered not long ago, on Nov. 29 in Lamoni. It was far away from any major reservoir. This was a record for the ages.
Ben Baldwin was scanning some geese on a local lake on Graceland University campus when one particular individual caught his eye. Lo and behold, Ben had found one of the most rare goose species that can be found in North America.
This was the tundra bean goose and only the second ever to have been found in the interior of North America. How did a goose that likely breeds in Arctic Russia and winters in East Asia end up in Iowa?
The state of Iowa is no stranger to bean geese. The tundra bean goose is closely related to the taiga bean goose. A taiga was documented at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in Harrison County from Dec. 29, 1984, to Jan. 6, 1985. Up until then, no bean goose had ever been found in the interior of the continent.
This goose and the recent tundra bean goose found in Lamoni are arguably the two most rare birds ever found in the Hawkeye state. As geese go, they are two of the most rare geese ever to be found in the Midwest.
Some authorities believe taiga and tundra may actually be one species. However, the most current version of the American Ornithological Society’s Checklist of North and Middle American Birds still recognizes the two as distinct species. If they are ever lumped, then Iowa will have two records. Most states have zero bean geese records.
The tundra bean goose is a smaller, largely brown goose. It has a dark bill with an orangish subterminal band. Its legs and feet are orange, similar to a greater white-fronted goose. Its similarity in size and appearance to white-fonted geese may be key in what helped it arrive to Iowa.
One of the more popular theories is it got mixed up somewhere near the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Tundra bean goose still is rare in Alaska, but more common than taiga. A stray tundra bean goose may have gotten mixed in with a flock of greater white-fronted geese. That flock may have wound up coming through Iowa during fall migration.
For some reason or another, this bean goose grew fond of a flock of geese, including Canada, cackling, snow and even a Ross’s goose. That was the makeup of the flock the bean goose was traveling with in and around Lamoni.
Two years ago, a tundra bean goose in the northeast United States appeared to be traveling in a snow goose flock. So there is a possibility it may have initially joined a flock of white geese coming through Iowa in the late fall. Exactly how it got to Iowa nobody will ever know.
The last time the tundra bean goose was seen near Lamoni was on Dec. 17. It has not been seen since the last blizzard that swept through the state later that month. During its stay in Iowa, it was seen by hundreds of people from many different states.
Could it still be around Lamoni? Will it be relocated elsewhere in Iowa or in the United States? Certainly, only time will tell.
Birds of February
- Bird blinds offer a great place to observe and possibly photograph common backyard birds. These include: downy, hairy, red-bellied and redheaded woodpeckers, white breasted nuthatch, American goldfinch, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, dark-eyed junco, American tree sparrow, white-throated sparrow, Carolina wren, etc.
Once in a while a less common bird may show up to feeders, which can cause great excitement in the birding community. Check out the “Amazing Space” at Indian Creek Nature Center and the feeders at Wickup Hill Learning Center. Another great setup is at MacBride Nature Recreation Area. George Wyth State Park also has an active bird blind.
- February weather can get really cold in Eastern Iowa, so keep in mind the only open water is often found around dam structures. The Coralville tailwaters area and any low head dam (roller dam) can be an excellent place to see and photograph bald eagles and waterfowl. Check roller dams often, which can typically turn up something interesting.
- Many raptors still are hanging on strong to winter territories in February. A good way to find them is to visit rural roads lined with utility poles. Carefully stopping at four-way intersections and scanning down the poles in every direction can be a good way to locate hawks, falcons or eagles. Practice good birding etiquette by not flushing raptors in areas with nearby heavy traffic or areas with lots of utility lines. It is also recommended not to disclose the precise locations of rarer wintering raptors.
- Feb. 19. 8 a.m.-3 p.m. — Quad Cities and Mississippi River for gulls, waterfowl and other birds on the Mississippi River. Stops will be at locks and dams, riverside parks and other hot spots like Fairmount Cemetery for winter finches. Walking is usually short distance from frequent stops. Will include a stop for lunch at a nearby restaurant. Return time is mid- afternoon. Dress for cold and wind and bring a spotting scope if you have one. Meet leader Chris Caster at the Hy-Vee parking lot, 1125 N Dodge Street, Iowa City. Carpooling is encouraged.
Brandon Caswell has a keen interest in natural and social sciences. He enjoys bird-watching and nature photography in his spare time. He and his wife live in Marion with their two children.