White geese were in the news last November with the tragic death of many in the Berkeley Pit.

Fortunately, Montana Resources and ARCO/BP have been implementing recommendations from the Berkeley Pit Waterfowl Mitigation Advisory Board of which I am a member. Newly implemented recommendations have been a series of propane cannons around the perimeter of the pit that fire randomly, and the installation of several “wailers.” Wailers are electronic sound devices that emit loud distress calls of waterfowl, and calls of predators such as peregrine falcons. This combination seems to be working well, as well as the direct hazing of birds that land on the water. Other methods that are being tested are laser beams, a remotely operated hydroplane and radar, but these are in the developmental stage and not yet implemented.

There have been a few landings of white geese in the pit, but no deaths this spring. MR staff have been able to haze birds off the water successfully.

Fortunately, white geese numbers are low in the Upper Clark Fork valley in the spring, which gives MR and ARCO/BP time to work out better methods of preventing what happened last fall if the “perfect storm” conditions come together again.

I have been monitoring white geese in the Upper Clark Fork in March and April and sending that information on to MR and ARCO/BP. The first white geese showed on March 12 on the ARCO 2 Pond at the Warm Springs WMA. Small numbers continue to be seen each week at the WMA and other ponds in the Upper Clark Fork Valley. It is anticipated that white geese will not be seen past the end of April. Numbers observed have been from a single bird to 200 in a flock. Most of the observations have been around 65 to 85 birds.

As we witnessed last fall, migration numbers in the fall can be large in comparison to spring. On the infamous November night, the estimation of white geese flying over the Berkeley Pit was between 10,000 and 12,000 with 3,000 landing in the pit.

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Why do we use the term white geese; there is no such species? There are actually two species within the white geese group. The more abundant species in our valley and Montana is the lesser snow goose or just snow goose. The other is the Ross’s goose, which looks very similar superficially.

The snow goose has two sub-species. The one we have locally is the lesser snow goose, Chen caerulescens and the other is the greater snow goose, Chen c. atlanticus. The greater has a length of 31 inches, wingspan of 56 inches and weighs 7.4 pounds. In comparison, the lesser has a length of 28 inches, wingspan of 53 inches and weighs 5.3 pounds. The greater breeds in northwest Greenland and winters in northeast Mexico. Their migration pathway is eastern North America. The lesser breeds in Alaska and Siberia, and winters in California and Gulf Coast. Lesser’s have four migration paths across North America from the West Coast to the East Coast.

The greater is an all-white bird with black wing tips. I have never seen one. The lesser is also most often all white with black wing tips, but there is dark morph as well, which can be nearly black with a white head or various intergrades between the two. In the past, the dark morph was considered a separate species called the blue goose. The lesser also has a “wedged-shaped” head, showing various degrees of tan color with an obvious “grin patch” (black area on lower bill). The base of the bill is strongly curved. All of these traits can be seen on the photo of the lesser snow goose.

In comparison, the Ross’s goose is rather small weighing only 2.7 pounds, a length of 23 inches and a wingspan of 45 inches. Additionally, the head is round rather than wedged shape, the bill is short and stubby, it lacks the “grin patch” and the base of the bill is straight rather than curved. Again the photo with this article shows these traits.

Most of the white geese that fly through the Clark Fork Valley are lesser snow geese. As March becomes April, the number of Ross’s increases, but never exceeds the number of lesser. Just the opposite happens at Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area outside Fairfield, where Montana experiences most of the white geese migration. By mid- to late April it is not uncommon for most of the white geese to be Ross’s.

We hope that Butte never experiences another “perfect storm” landing of large numbers of white geese at the pit. But I can assure you, MR and ARCO/BP have taken the problem seriously, and with the help of the council are better equipped to prevent birds from landing. New hazing techniques are showing that they are better at getting birds back off the water in a shorter period of time.

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Gary Swant of Deer Lodge taught biological sciences at Powell County High School for 25 years. After retirement he founded GoBirdMontana, www.gobirdmontana.com, an environmental consulting and bird guide service. He can be reached via email at birdmt@charter.net. This column features bird species of the Upper Clark Fork River Valley from Butte to Garrison. Swant hopes the column will inspire people to take an interest in observing birds.


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