tofino birding - the cackling goose

Honk if you Love Geese!

by Adrian Dorst, Tofino

“A March morning is only as drab
as he 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 day.

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. By 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, the 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 Brant.

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 arctic 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 case 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 may 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 anomaly.

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 guide. His photos can be found on Adrian's website at

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Tofino birding article on the geese that visit Tofino and Clayoquot Sound, written by Tofino birding expert Adrian Dorst.

tofino time december 2004

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