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PHOTO BY CORY HUSIC A pink-footed goose, foreground, aloft with Canada goose at Muhlenberg Lake, Cedar Beach Park, Allentown. PHOTO BY CORY HUSIC A pink-footed goose, foreground, aloft with Canada goose at Muhlenberg Lake, Cedar Beach Park, Allentown.

Rare birds of a different feather sighted together in region

Wednesday, February 13, 2013 by BUD COLE Special to The Press in Social News

The popularity of birds and birding has been increasing across the United States, as well as here in the Lehigh Valley.

One example that sparked major media attention was the high-profile search for the ivory-billed woodpecker in Louisiana beginning in 2002. The ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird thought to be extinct, was last authoritatively observed in 1943.

A team of expert ornithologists, funded by a corporate sponsor, began searching for evidence of existing ivory-bills after a reliable sighting was made by a turkey hunter in Louisiana.

Recently, Jacobsburg Environmental Education Center naturalist Bill Sweeney made the decision to leave his job there to pursue the possibility that this rare bird is still out there somewhere. The quest to find an ivory-bill has always been one of Sweeney's aspirations.

Another example is that "Sibley's Guide to Birds," written by David Allen Sibley, became a New York Times best-seller in 1999.

And you know that a hobby enters popular culture when it goes Hollywood. "The Big Year' (2011) stars Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black as birders in a year-long bird-spotting competition.

The Internet is full of birding websites listing hundreds of bird festivals scheduled across the U.S. each year. The unusual part of this birding trend is that while interest is increasing, many bird species numbers are declining.

According to the U.S. Geological Service, using a 35-year gathering of data (1996 - 2001), almost one in four bird species in the U.S. show "significant negative trend estimates." (Sauer et al. 2003).

The decline is attributed primarily to the degradation and destruction of habitat because of human population growth and short-sighted environmental procedures.

According to the 2001 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, there are 46 million bird watchers. This would be about one in five.

About 40 million, or 80 percent, are backyard birders and about 18 million, or 40 percent, are birders who took trips away from home go birding.

This trend and the corresponding numbers have continued to rise. A survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2009 found birdwatchers and bird watching activities contributed $36 billion annually to the U.S. economy.

Two recent bird sightings in Allentown and the nearby area have stimulated local birders' interests. A pink-footed goose and a greater white-fronted goose were observed.

A pink-footed goose was discovered Jan. 4 at the Fogelsville Quarry, Upper Macungie Township.

According to Scott Burnet, Habitat Development and Enhancement Committee Chairman for the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society, the pink-footed goose was only the second one ever recorded in Lehigh County.

Burnet observed the bird at the quarry from about sunrise until 8:30 p.m. Jan. 7. The pink-footed goose flew off with a flock of Canada geese, most likely to find food.

Later that day, at about noon, Burnet observed a pink-footed goose at Muhlenberg Lake, Cedar Beach Park, Hamilton Boulevard and Ott Street, Allentown. This sighting was confirmed by Lehigh Valley Audubon Society President Peter Saenger and Dr. Daniel Klem, Sarkis Acopian Professor of Ornithology & Conservation Biology, Muhlenberg College.

A call by Saenger to a birder at the Fogelsville Quarry at the same time Burnet observed the one at Muhlenberg Lake confirmed that there were two pink-footed geese in the area.

The greater white-fronted goose was discovered at Dorney Pond, South Whitehall Township, in early December (exact date unknown). Burnet first observed the white-fronted goose Dec. 14, 2012, at Trexler Park Lake, Allentown. Although it is most often seen at Trexler Park Lake, it seems to spend its nights at Dorney Pond.

"As to why these birds have come here, we are unsure," said Burnet. "It is likely that they mingled in with Canada Geese making their way south from northern Canada.

"In ornithology we call these birds vagrants. They may stay all winter, as they have a good local food source and are protected from threats here where they roost.

"Undoubtedly, they will head back to their breeding grounds in early spring. Nonetheless, it is a pretty big deal that these birds are here," Burnet said.

"These birds [geese] sleep on the water overnight and then fly off to feed in local agricultural fields in the early morning hours.

"They return from feeding just before dusk, but may roost on a different local body of water than the night before. The best times for people to try to see them are just after sunrise, or just before sunset," said Burnet.

The pink-footed goose, Anser brachyrhynchus, is described as a medium-sized goose ranging from 24- to 30-inches-long with a wingspan of 53 to 67 inches across. The weight varies from 4 to 7.5 pounds. They breed in eastern Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard (island group off the northern coast of Norway).

What makes it even more amazing to see a pink-footed goose in the Lehigh Valley is that they winter in northwest Europe, especially Great Britain, The Netherlands and Denmark.

By comparison, the familiar Canada goose ranges from 30 to 49 inches in length and has a wingspan that varies from 53 to 70 inches. A male Canada goose weighs between 7.1 and 14 pounds. The lighter female weighs 5.5 to 12 pounds.

A pink-footed goose has a short bill. The bill's base and tip are black while the middle is bright pink. As the common name indicates, it has pink feet. The body is light brown. The head and neck are black. The rump and vent are white. The tail is grey, tipped in white. The wings are blackish-grey.

Breeding ranges from April to mid-May. The pairs mate for life unless something happens to the male or female. If this occurs, they will find a new mate.

Nesting is in small colonies. The female lays from four to seven eggs. Incubation takes about one month. Newly-hatched chicks are precocial (covered in down feathers and with eyes open). The offspring stay with the parents until the next breeding season.

The greater white-fronted goose, Anser albifrons, is named for the distinctive white band of white feathers found at the base of its bill. The rest of the bill is light pink.

The length ranges from 25 to 32 inches with a wingspan from 51 to 65 inches across. The body weight varies from 4.3 to 7.3 pounds.

Its head, neck and upper back are grayish-brown. The lower back, rump and tail are dark brown. The tip of the tail is white. The breast's salt and pepper markings on the adults gave rise to the nickname, specklebelly. The legs and feet are orange.

Greater white-fronted geese breed near the Arctic Circle across Alaska, north central Canada, Russia and Greenland. They are solitary nesters nesting in tidal flats and upland areas in tall grasses and sedges. The female lays an average of five eggs.

They migrate along the Pacific and Central flyways wintering in the Central Valley of California, coastal Mexico, Texas and Louisiana. Some winter in central Mexico. They have one of the largest ranges of any species of goose in the world.

Be sure to look for these two species of geese before they head north.

That's the way I see it!

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© 2013 Bud Cole