Figure 1. Young Greater White-fronted Goose. Photograph by Alan Kneidel.
The fields along Vaughan Hill Road in Rochester, Massachusetts have long been known to attract large numbers of Canada Geese in the winter (Marchessault 2017). These fields, with their large flocks of Canada Geese, can be a great place to check for other species mixed in with their more common relatives. In most years, a careful search might turn up a Cackling Goose or Snow Goose, but the many birders who visited Rochester in the winter of 2019–2020 were rewarded with something unusual. This year proved to be exceptional as this area managed to rack up more species of geese than anywhere else in New England.
Alan Kneidel got the season off to an early start when he visited the Rochester fields on October 19, 2019. Waterfowl migration was just getting underway and new flocks of Canada Geese were passing through the area regularly. Alan said, "I love looking at geese. Few things are more thrilling in the birding world than pulling up alongside a big flock of geese with an opportunity to pick through them." When he arrived in Rochester that day, most of the geese were concentrated on a small pond. After searching through the flock a couple of times, he picked out a brown goose with orange legs and bill and just a few white feathers behind the bill—a young Greater White-fronted Goose (Figure 1). This species is rare but regular in Rochester, but this year it was only the beginning.
Figure 2. Snow Goose. Photograph by Lisa Schibley.
Having seen Alan's report, Lisa Schibley decided to stop by before going to work the next day. Before relocating the Greater White-fronted Goose, she spotted a new arrival to the fields, a Snow Goose. Most Snow Geese in Massachusetts are of the white morph, with an occasional dark morph or Blue Goose showing up. This particular individual fell somewhere in between with pale gray on most of the body and a white belly (Figure 2).
Both of these birds lingered in the area for the next couple of months and were seen by many birders. The next major development came on January 15, 2020, when Neil Dowling paid a visit to Rochester. He had previously seen the Greater White-fronted Goose and Snow Goose and was hoping to pick out a Cackling Goose from the flock. Instead, he found a pair of Barnacle Geese (Figure 3). This sighting was only the second for this species in Plymouth County, with the first being a single bird found by Jim Sweeney in 2003 (Rines 2004).
The Barnacle Geese stayed at this spot for the next couple of days, and several birders were able to see the Greater White-fronted Goose, Snow Goose, and both Barnacle Geese together. For the weeks between January 18 and February 2, these four geese moved to a golf course and pond in neighboring Acushnet, which is in Bristol County. The Barnacle Geese were a first record for Bristol County, and many observers were able to see all four individuals together there as well.
Figure 3. Barnacle Geese. Photograph by Neil Dowling.
When I first saw Neil's report of the Barnacle Geese, I was eager to get down there and see them. But my first chance was the following Saturday, January 18, and they had already left Rochester by then. As a proud Plymouth County birder, looking for the birds three miles down the road in Acushnet just wouldn't be the same. I wanted to see them in Rochester. The Barnacle Geese returned to the Rochester fields in February, but, unfortunately, I was away on vacation at the time and had to sit back and watch the Rare Bird Alert e-mails come in from eBird each day.
On February 23, I was back home and finally had a chance to look for the Barnacle Geese again. I drove to Rochester first thing in the morning and pulled up alongside the cornfields. Right along the edge of the road was a small group of Canada Geese with one obviously different goose mixed in. But this was not one of the Barnacle Geese I was looking for. This goose was medium-sized with a dark brown head, gray back, and pink legs and feet—a Pink-footed Goose (Figure 4). I took photos and got the word out to friends. I also drove down to the other end of the field to tell other birders who were in the area. Luckily, when I told them about the Pink-footed, they told me what they were looking at—the two Barnacle Geese. The Snow Goose was still hanging around that day, too.
The Pink-footed Goose was the second record for Plymouth County, the first having been found by John Galluzzo along the coast in the town of Plymouth only a few months earlier on December 1, 2019 (ebird.org/checklist/S61900551). A Pink-footed Goose had also been found in nearby Bristol County on December 6, 2019 by Matthew Eckerson (ebird.org/checklist/S61900551). These sightings all may have been of the same bird. Initially, this goose was present in Rochester only for the one day. However, it did return for about a week in mid-March, which gave many more birders an opportunity to see it.
Figure 4. Pink-footed Goose. Photograph by Brian Vigorito.
With Canada, Greater White-fronted, Snow, Barnacle, and Pink-footed geese, this year's list for the Rochester fields stands at an impressive five different species. Missing from this year's list is a Cackling Goose. Although this species had been somewhat regular here over the last few years, none was found in the winter of 2019–2020.
If we look at Plymouth County as a whole, Alan Kneidel did find a Cackling Goose this year about 20 miles away at the Monponsett Ponds. Including Brant—common along the coast, but unlikely to be found at an inland field—Plymouth County had seven species of geese this winter. That's every species that has ever been found in this county, and only one short of the overall state list—Plymouth County never has had a Ross's Goose. Now that we know what is possible in a good winter at Rochester, I'm sure we'll have many birders out scanning the flocks for rarities this coming winter of 2020–2021.
- Marchessault, N. 2017. Birding Marion, Mattapoisett, and Rochester, Massachusetts. Bird Observer ٤٥ (٦):٣٦٥–٧٦.
- Rines, M. 2004. Eighth Annual Report of the Massachusetts Avian Records Committee. Bird Observer 32 (2):105–112.