Honk if you Love Geese!
by Adrian Dorst, Tofino
“A March morning
is only as drab
who walks in it
without a glance skyward,
ear cocked for geese.”
Those are the words of Waldo Leopold, conservationist and writer extra-ordinaire.
Of course in Tofino you might have to change the month to April, as
that’s when the largest numbers of geese pass over on their way
north. In fact, at the height of the spring migration, in late April,
as many as 10,000 geese may be seen passing over the village in a single
The fall migration is a different story, with only occasional flocks
seen passing overhead and a few flocks on the water. Things were
not always thus. Estimates from the 1950s, indicate there were as many
as 10,000 geese feeding and resting in the Tofino area at the height
of the season. By 1972, numbers peaked at just below 3,000 birds.
the mid-eighties, those numbers had dropped to around 300 birds.
This was almost certainly due to the nearly unceasing disturbance inflicted
on the birds during hunting season in those decades. As a result,
geese chose to bypass the Tofino mudflats and flew directly to wintering
grounds in Washington, Oregon and California.
There are now some small, but hopeful signs that the number of geese
using our area may be slowly on the rise again. This is likely due
to the expanded boundaries of Tofino, which provides a de-facto sanctuary
along its borders. No shooting is allowed so close to the village.
So what are these geese that travel through our area? To date, six
species have been recorded here, the Snow, Ross’s, Emperor, White-fronted,
Canada Goose and Brant.
Snow Geese migrate primarily through the Georgia Basin and congregate
in large numbers at Reifel Refuge at the mouth of the Fraser River.
As a result they are seen only occasionally over Tofino. The entire
population that travels through coastal BC, is reported to nest on
Wrangel Island in northeast Siberia. The small but similar Ross’s
Goose nests in Canada’s high arctic and migrates through the
Great Plains. It has occurred in Tofino only once, in the company of
Greater White-fronted Geese pass over Tofino in large numbers in
spring and much smaller numbers in fall, when most migrate well offshore.
These birds have orange legs, a pink bill and a white face, with the
bellies of the adults heavily streaked with black. In some individuals
the entire belly may be black. On occasion, flocks of “White-fronts” may
be seen feeding on the green at the Long Beach Golf Course.
The Emperor Goose looks somewhat like a dark morph Snow Goose, formerly
called ‘Blue Goose,’ but the Emperor is grey overall with
a scaly appearance and has a small bill. It breeds in western Alaska
and winters in the Aleutian Islands. Occasionally, individuals wander
as far south as California. Members of this species have been seen
here only three times. On one occasion, three birds were seen at Cleland
Island and on another, a bird was seen to land on a wet Tofino street,
apparently mistaking it for a river. The third occurrence was a bird
seen at Estevan Point.
Brant look rather like small, dark Canada Geese, with the black of
the neck extending down onto the breast. Instead of a chinstrap,
they have a white necklace just below the head. Brant nest in the high
and migrate south to Mexico, where they spend the winter in lagoons
in western Baja and on the east side of the Sea of Cortes. At one
time they also wintered on Georgia Strait, but that has not been the
for decades. In Tofino, up to 3,000 birds may be seen riding at anchor
between the village and Stubbs Island in April and May. There are
fears that heightened disturbance due to floatplanes and boat traffic
be reducing their numbers. Indeed, in the spring of 2004, almost
no birds were seen. Time will tell if this was part of a trend or an
Everyone, of course, is familiar with Canada Geese with their black
necks and white chinstraps, but how many of you know that Canada Geese
come in a variety of sizes, ranging from 1600 grams to 4500 grams?
Or that the breast colour varies from nearly white to chocolate, depending
on where the birds are from? These various populations or ‘races’ constitute
subspecies, of which there are about ten. At least six of these have
been seen in our area.
Now for the exciting news. A decade or so ago, biologists studying
Canada Goose populations began to suspect that the small geese that
breed in Alaska might be distinct enough to be a separate species.
An examination of the mitochondrial dna of the various subspecies,
backed up that assertion. The result of this research was recently
accepted by the American Ornithologists Union, making it official:
large geese remain Canada Geese, while the races of smaller geese
are now classified as a new species. This means that the large numbers
of small geese that pass over Tofino, in spring, are now called Cackling
Geese, making this the seventh variety to occur in our area.
The new designation is already the cause of a conundrum, however.
It turns out that a mid-sized race called “Lesser Canada Goose,” actually
consists of two subspecies known by the Latin name as Bc parvipes and
Bc taverneri. Comparison of the Mitochondrial DNA of these two very
similar birds has shown that parvipes is a Canada Goose, and taverneri
is a Cackling Goose. So here we have two species that look almost identical
and yet belong to different species. At the moment, no one yet knows
for sure which of the two is the one that passes through Tofino. This
is not insignificant, as this is our most common goose. If it proves
to be taverneri, we can look skyward in spring and declare with confidence
that all the birds we are seeing, both small and mid-sized, are Cackling
Geese. If it proves to be parvipes, which seems unlikely, the two species
will be hopelessly indiscernible to the average viewer and my advice
is to just fake it, as nobody will contradict you anyway.
Adrian Dorst is a Tofino nature photographer, carver, and Tofino birdwatching
His photos can be found
on Adrian's website at www.adriandorst.com.
Tofino Birdwatching Articles
Tofino birding article on the geese that visit Tofino and Clayoquot Sound, written by Tofino birding expert Adrian Dorst.