Outdoors

March is good month to spot geese

Birding: Canada and cackling are easy to find

The typical form of Canada geese we see in Eastern Iowa. This shot was recently taken at the paved river walk near the Iowa River Power Restaurant in Iowa City. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)
The typical form of Canada geese we see in Eastern Iowa. This shot was recently taken at the paved river walk near the Iowa River Power Restaurant in Iowa City. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)
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The Canada goose may evoke mixed emotions among many Iowans.

To the golf course greenskeeper, gaggles of these geese may result in a painstaking effort to keep them from covering everything in stinky feces.

The seasoned birdwatcher may know the goose’s taxonomy underwent an extensive overhaul in 2004. Up until the end of the 20th century, the Canada goose was recognized as a group of around a dozen subspecies. I recently argued with a hunter on social media about what a Canada versus cackling goose was. The hunter said the cackling goose also was a Canada goose, merely a derivative.

Then I realized we were simply having a quibbling over semantics. Hunters don’t prescribe to taxonomy for a logical reason.

Before the establishment of cackling goose, the Canada goose was divided into three main categories — large, medium and small geese. All have the same generalized coloration: a large black neck with a white cheek patch and a body varying in the amount of brown. All have a white undertail with black legs and feet. By the end of the 1980s, authorities were starting to identify the smaller geese as a distinct species, the cackling goose. Four different races of cackling geese are now recognized.

Iowa has Richardson’s race of cackling.

Canada geese range in size from the largest, the Giant Canada goose, to the smallest, the Lesser Canada goose. The lesser is somewhat larger than the cackling goose. What sets the cackling apart from the lesser Canada is predominantly head shape. Cackling geese tend to have an angular forehead, which is more sloped on a lesser. Cackling also have a smaller, stubbier bill. While lesser Canada geese have a smaller bill than the larger races, the bill is generally longer when compared to cackling. Also notable, cackling geese have a body size approaching that of a mallard.

Canada geese numbers have increased dramatically over the last half century. Golf courses and large park lawns offer them food throughout the year, thus there is relatively little need to migrate. In Iowa, Canada geese may migrate within the state’s borders.

Although more than 2.5 million geese are taken annually by hunters, their population does not seem to be affected. Known as “dark geese,” hunters lump Canada, greater white-fronted and cackling together. Just imagine how confusing it would be for the Iowa DNR to divide all the dark geese into categories with set limits. These dark geese can be tough enough to identify just watching them in binoculars or a spotting scope for a prolonged period.

Birders and hunters can lay the semantics to rest.

OTHER BIRDS IN MARCH

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— Snow geese, including both light and dark morphs, along with Ross’s goose and greater white-fronted geese can be found both with or separate from flocks of Canada and cackling. There are currently hundreds of thousands of snow geese farther south in Missouri and Illinois. Get ready to start seeing huge pushes of geese into Eastern Iowa.

— Snow buntings are irrupting into central and Eastern Iowa due to the severity of the snow situation to the north and west. Early March will be a great opportunity to see them in sizable flocks around Cedar Rapids. Be prepared to scour the country roads in order to find them.

— Great horned and barred owl should be nesting, so keep your eyes peeled at large trees with ample cavities and platforms. Bald eagles and especially red-tailed hawks should be more commonly seen in pairs as nesting proceeds.

MARCH BIRDING CALENDAR

— March 6, 8 a.m. — Kent Park Bird Walk with leader Rick Hollis. Meet at the Conservation Education Center. A great environment for retired folks, but the walk is for all who are interested.

— March 9, 6:30 a.m. — Burlington Area and Mississippi River for spring waterfowl migration. Target birds include ducks, geese, pelicans, winter wren and many more. Sixty-four species were seen in 2018. This is an all-day trip led by Burlington local expert birder Chuck Fuller, with stops at locks and dams, riverside parks and other hot spots. Walking is usually short distance from frequent stops. We’ll stop for lunch at a nearby restaurant. Dress for cold and wind and bring a scope if possible. Meet Karen Disbrow at 6:30 a.m. at the Fin & Feather parking lot, 125 Highway 1 West, Iowa City; or at 8 a.m. at the Port of Burlington, 400 Front St, Burlington.

— March 16, 7:45 a.m. — Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge. Wildlife biologist Jessica Bolser will lead us on a spring waterfowl tour on refuge roads that are normally closed to vehicles. Our driving route includes a 5.5-mile loop in the Louisa Division, which is managed primarily for migratory birds and other wildlife. Meet Linda Quinn at 7:45 a.m. at the Hy-Vee parking lot, 1125 North Dodge St., Iowa City, or at 9 a.m. at the refuge headquarters, 10728 County Road X61, Wapello. Bring snacks, water and a scope if possible. We’ll return to Iowa City around 1 p.m. In case of flooding on the refuge road, the event may be canceled. Contact Linda, (319) 330-3328, for updates.

— March 19, 7 p.m. — Beginning Birder Course: Basics of Birding I at the Conservation Education Center in Kent Park. Advance registration is requested and is free for Iowa City Bird Club members. Call Sydney Algreen, (319) 645-1011, to register.

— March 20, 8 a.m. — Kent Park Bird Walk with leader Rick Hollis. Meet at the Conservation Education Center.

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— March 21, 7 p.m. — Meeting. Karen Disbrow will talk about Sandhill Cranes in Iowa and Nebraska. Unless otherwise noted, meetings are at Room A, Robert A. Lee Community Rec. Center, 220 South Gilbert St., generally at 7 p.m. on the third Thursday of the month.

— March 24, 8 a.m. — Cone Marsh in Louisa County for Sandhill Cranes, migrating ducks, geese and other water birds. Meet at the Fin & Feather parking lot, 125 Highway. 1 West in Iowa City. Beginning Birder Trip.

— March 26, 7 p.m. — Beginning Birder Course: Basics of Birding II at the Kent Park CEC. Advance registration is requested and is free for club members. Call Sydney Algreen, (319) 645-1011.

— March 30, 8 a.m. — Kent Park near Tiffin. We will explore the trails in this county park looking for migrating songbirds and resident woodland birds. Meet at the CEC in Kent Park. Beginning Birder Trip.

Brandon Caswell has undergraduate degrees in biology, anthropology and geology. His graduate degree centered on dating continental collisions within the Precambrian Canada Shield. Bird-watching and nature photography are among his favorite hobbies. He lives with his wife and son in Marion. Email brandon.caswell83@gmail.com with birding-related questions, including questions about activities.

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