Amelia: Taking this fall trip to Quebec City was a great idea- the coloured leaves are spectacular! What a perfect day to walk along the St. Lawrence River. Just me, the cliffs, a saltwater mash…and a goose pulling up reeds like their life depends on it.
Greater Snow Goose: Well excuse me for wanting to live another day! While you can drive to a new destination, some of us have to fly. And that takes significant fuel, let me tell you!
A: Really, you’re taking a trip too? Where are you headed?
G: South Carolina, baby! There’s a coastal marsh there with my name on it.
A: Sounds beautiful. Wait, isn’t South Carolina over 2,000 km away from here?
G: You’ve got it. Hence why I’m stuffing my face with these bulrush roots. I just flew in from Bylot Island in Nunavut, which makes the flight to South Carolina look like a cakewalk!
A: I’ve never heard of Bylot Island. Where is it?
G: It’s at the tippy top of Baffin Island. Oddly enough, you humans don’t get out there much. Let’s keep it that way.
A: Wait a minute, you’re a Snow Goose that lives in the arctic, but you fly south in the winter to escape the snow. That’s ironic.
G: You try being a vegetarian bird in the arctic in the winter. See how that works out for you.
A: You have a point. So why go to Bylot Island at all? What’s so special about it?
G: Believe it or not, it’s a great place to raise a family. And there’s lots of good company, because the island hosts the largest breeding colony of Greater Snow Geese in North America. The food there is also great- tons of grasses and sedges to dig up. I’m drooling just thinking about it.
A: Okay, you’ve convinced me. When do you arrive at your breeding grounds?
G: We get there in June or July, but we have to leave in September when the ponds start freezing over. There’s no time to waste! My mate and I have to find a good feeding area to defend, and then pick a spot for the nest somewhere on higher ground with good visibility- we need to be on guard for invading neighbours!
A: Why do you have to watch out for your neighbours?
G: To defend our food! I have to sit on that nest for 24 days, and if I have to walk a long way to get food, I get grouchy. My mate’s job is chasing out any other geese who try to eat in our area. But that’s not all.
A: What else could happen?
G: Sometimes, a sneaky Snow Goose will come lay one of her eggs near our nest. She knows that it will attract predators, so we are forced to move it into our nest and raise it as our own. It’s very annoying – particularly as we already have four eggs of our own to worry about!
A: That’s…generous of you, I guess. Are there any other measures you take to protect the nest?
G: If we can find one, we choose a spot near a snowy owl’s nest.
A: Excuse me? Won’t the snowy owl go after your eggs and babies?
G: Not really- they have other favorite snacks. But owls won’t tolerate foxes and gull-like birds called jaegers on their territory, and those animals are the main predators of our eggs and babies. So being near an owl nest is like having free security.
A: That’s clever. I know summers in the arctic are short. How do you have enough time to raise your babies?
G: You haven’t met our goslings. They are machines.
A: What do you mean?
G: A few hours after hatching, they can walk, swim, dive and feed themselves.
A: You’re kidding.
G: Nope. They also grow super fast. 24 hours after the last gosling hatches, they’re ready to leave the nest. The hard part is keeping everyone fed. Sometimes we have to walk up to three kilometres a day to find the next damp meadow, lake edge, or tidal marsh.
A: Really, you walk? Why don’t you just fly?
G: Umm…while our goslings are machines, it still takes over six weeks before they can fly. Some things you can’t rush. As parents we’re also shedding and growing new feathers at this time, so we can’t fly either.
A: Right, that makes sense. But aren’t you vulnerable to predators if you’re just walking around?
G: For a bird, I’m surprisingly fast on my feet. I can outrun most predators. As for the goslings, we try our best to protect them from gulls and foxes, but weren’t not always successful. We’re a very close-knit family- we’ll stay with them through fall migration and into the winter. It’s only during next year’s spring migration that they go their own way.
A: Speaking of your family, where are they? I don’t see any other geese here besides you.
G: Ah, my mate and I decided to take a break from babies this year. It wasn’t a great year for food in Nunavut, so we decided to conserve our energy and wait until next year. That being said, a summer focused solely on stuffing our faces had its perks.
A: Fair enough! But where is your mate now, if they’re not here with you?
G: Oh, they’re hanging out with 40,000 of our closest friends at Cap Tourmente National Wildlife Area. I just took a short detour because I love to people-watch at this beach at Cap-Rouge in Quebec City. You humans crack me up, and goodness knows we don’t see many of you on Bylot Island!
A: I guess if people can birdwatch, birds can people-watch too. Wait, did you say 40,000 Snow Geese?
G: Yep, we’re social animals. If you have to migrate 4,000 kilometres, why not make it a road trip with 1,000 buddies? Cap Tourmente is one of our hang-out spots known as “staging areas” where tens of thousands of us gather for about 19 days to stuff our faces with bulrushes before we make the final sprint for our wintering grounds in the Southern United States. It was kind of you humans to make it a protected area so we could continue to use it undisturbed.
A: I guess we sometimes do the right thing. By the way, I can’t help but notice that your head is tinted orange, while the rest of you is pure white. Why is that?
G: I spend a lot of my life with my head stuck in the mud while digging up roots. You do enough of that, and the iron in the soil stains your feathers. Speaking of which, if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of eating to do.
A: Of course, I’ll leave you to it!