Alameda’s Other Geese

Doug Henderson -- The Snow Goose would not be mistaken for, but might be seen with, a Canada Goose in one of Alameda’s many parks.

Alameda’s Other Geese

If you live in Alameda, you are doubtless aware of the Canada Goose, the subject of Michael Charnofsky’s article last month (“Canada Goose: A Big, Bold, Beautiful Bird,” July 19; But if you look closely the next time you encounter a gaggle of geese, you might be lucky enough to see one of the five other species of geese that occasionally visit us. Although they are rarely found here during the summer, there are several migratory species of that may join the flocks of resident Canadas as fall and winter approach.

Many of these birds breed thousands of miles to the north and make an annual trip south to winter in California, mainly in the Central Valley. Although the Bay Area is not their normal wintering ground, for some reason a few of them will wander here. If you are walking at Crab Cove, Rittler Park, Alameda Point, or any of the other places where geese gather, see if you can find one or two that look different from the rest of the crowd. One of the most frequent interlopers, the Cackling Goose, looks like a miniature version of the Canada Goose, and is often assumed to be a younger bird. In addition to being significantly smaller, the Cackling Goose can be reliably distinguished from its cousin by having a much shorter neck. Sometimes they have a white ring around the base of the neck. This is usually the Aleutian subspecies that breeds on the Aleutian Islands. In the spring the cacklers will take off for their breeding grounds in northern Canada and Alaska.

The second most common winter visitor is the Greater White-fronted Goose, which is easily recognized as a different species, but often hides in plain sight among the Canadas. It is a medium-sized grayish brown goose with black barring on the belly. It gets its name from the patch of white around the bill. You may also notice the bright orange legs and feet that make it stand out from the crowd. Sometimes they show up in pairs and sometimes alone. Often when they come here they stay for months. They winter in large numbers in the wildlife refuges in the Central valley, but smaller numbers find their way to the coast.

Other surprise guests who are less frequent but more noticeable are the two species of white geese, the Snow Goose and Ross’s Goose. Conspicuous by their almost completely white plumage, these two will not be mistaken for the Canada Goose but might be hard to tell from each other. They both have some black in the wings but when on the ground the black primaries (long flight feathers at the outer edge of the wing) are mostly hidden. The challenge is to separate the two species, and the key is in the bill. The Snow Goose has a larger bill, with a black patch or “smile” in it. The Ross’s Goose has a short stubby bill that is pretty much all pink. Both species have red legs. Like the Greater White-fronted Goose, the white geese both spend their summers in the far north and winter in large flocks in the Central Valley.

The last species that you might discover is the Brant. This one is smaller and darker than the Canada but can easily blend in if you’re not paying attention. It lacks the distinctive white “chin strap”, but instead it has a white ring around the neck. Unlike the other visitors, this is a coastal bird which rarely gets as far inland as Alameda. I have only seen one Brant in Alameda, but one spent most of the winter at Crab Cove in 2020-2021.

It is not clear why these birds come here to a place that they don’t usually inhabit. Maybe they get lost or get blown off course by storms. Sometimes they are here today and gone tomorrow, but it is not unusual for them to hang around once they get here. Maybe they like the company of the Canada Goose flocks, or maybe, like us, they just enjoy the beautiful parks of Alameda.

Doug Henderson is a member of the Golden Gate Audubon Society and leads the Alameda team of the Oakland Christmas Bird Count and the Audubon Canyon team of the Marin County Christmas Bird Count.