Earlier this month, the Oregon birding community went into quite the buzz over an unusual visitor to our region: A tundra bean-goose, normally native to Europe and Asia, showed up in the company of a flock of cackling geese at Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge on November 9th. A week later, with a fantastic weather forecast for mid-November and the goose being confirmed in the same general location very consistently, I opted to head out on a wild goose chase to see this possible once-in-a-lifetime visitor for myself. (And to get in some additional coastal birding while I was there, of course.)
Up ridiculously early, I started my trek with plans to arrive at the coast right around sunrise. From Portland, it was projected to be just over two hours for me to reach my destination. Appropriately enough for a wild goose chase, my GPS application of choice sent me down some obscure, back-country roads to get to the refuge; it shaved 18 or so miles off of my journey, but saved no time. Even the cows gave me a funny look as I took my clearly out of place car through the area. It was a lovely drive, however, and I would like to retrace it at a later hour of the morning another time for some definite photo-ops.
This was technically my second visit to the refuge, but the first time I had arrived (six months prior), it was raining too much to venture out of the car and my only photograph was of two deer grazing beside the parking lot.
Nestucca Bay NWR is largely made up of pastures and wetlands, which entice huge numbers of Canada & cackling geese to the area; this includes subspecies like the dusky Canada goose, and the Aleutian cackling goose. Of course, other migratory birds are drawn in as well. The Cannery Hill unit is open to visitors, with a viewing platform on the lower parking lot. From there, you can opt to drive or walk the Christensen Road/Trail uphill and through a strip of forested area to the second parking lot. This second lot has fantastic views up to Pacific City and out to the ocean, as well as of the immediately surrounding grassland. From the parking lot, you can follow the Pacific View Trail further up the hill (the grade isn’t too bad and the trail is well maintained) to an observation deck, giving a great 360 view of the prairie-to-be. The coastal prairie here is undergoing restoration efforts, and I imagine over the next few years, visitors will see some changes in the flora and the animals that the plants are attracting to the refuge.
I arrived not long after the sun was up; the sky was nearly cloudless, the wind was constant and high, and the temperature was right around freezing but it had been dry for days so there was little to no ice. Clearly I was not the only one crazy enough to be out looking for the bean-goose, as there were a few others who had beaten me to the refuge.
My plan was to start at the viewing platform on the first parking lot and work my way up the hill on foot for maximum birding opportunity. I was absolutely prepared to spend time venturing between the two locations the goose had most often been spotted at in order to track it down and obtain photographic evidence that I needed to add it to my bird count for the year. Determined and bundled up against potential hours in the cold, I headed for my starting point and was greeted by an energetic volunteer who was already manning the location with a spotting scope for visitors. She was quite pleased to hear I was there for the bean-goose, pointed me towards the guest book they had set up to see how many folks came to see the wayward traveler, and then informed me that the goose I’d come so far to see was immediately below us and already in the view of her scope. This was the easiest “wild goose chase” of all time.
“Mr. Bean”, as she called him, was down grazing with a flock of similarly-sized cackling geese. Unfortunately they were back-lit, making some of the tell-tale details harder to pick out. At a glance, the overall brown coloration of the bean-goose is similar to the shade of the cacklers, but he lacks the black head & neck, and white cheek patches. Most distinguishable from a distance are the orange feet of the bean goose, compared to the brownish-black of the cackling geese; there is an orange spot on the bill of the bean-goose, but it was hard to make out from a distance and in the light. Although he had arrived with these other geese and continued to stay with them, the bean-goose was seemingly not friendly with all of them as he would nip at some when they came too close; others he seemed on better terms with, and they would peacefully eat side-by-side for a time.
With the “wild goose” portion of my day’s to-do list checked off unexpectedly early, I was left with an entire beautiful day at the coast to myself, and I was already in a wonderful starting location. I ended my visit at the Nestucca Bay NWR as I had begun, photographing the tundra bean-goose (now with slightly better light). Check back for further reports of my coastal day trip soon to learn more about the birds seen at the refuge, and other locations along the Oregon Coast!