Diverse geese grace our waterfront this spring

Despite their efforts, the local Canada Geese had no bearing on my decision to move to Benicia in 2022. I tend to ignore them when I’m not actively avoiding them, a habit I developed while growing up in a San Jose suburb. Canada Geese commandeered our little league fields, scavenged our hot lunches and forced the fountains and ponds to be drained at my neighborhood’s largest park. I don’t particularly like them. And yet, these past few years in Benicia I’ve gotten far more interested in their whereabouts than I ever have before, regularly reaching for my binoculars and camera due to the company they keep during the spring and fall. 

Each fall, millions of ducks and geese fling themselves southward along the Pacific Flyway, and in the spring, they head back north to their respective breeding grounds. The Sacramento Delta is a critical staging area for thousands of these weary travelers, and Benicia is conveniently located on the Delta’s doorstep. While many Canada Geese and Mallards are year-round Benicia residents, their migratory cousins will sometimes make pit stops a little further removed from their flight paths toward the Central Valley’s grain fields. It’s a universally common phenomenon for migrant fowl to hang with whoever looks, quacks or honks like them, and while I haven’t seen much interspecies mingling amongst our local Mallards, I’ve now seen Benicia’s geese take in stray kin several times.

It started with a weird looking white blob following a gaggle of Canada Geese along the First Street Green.

I got a little closer, and realized it was some type of goose, but couldn’t quite identify it without more glass in front of my face. I raced home, came back with my telephoto lens, and proceeded to have my closest-ever encounter with a Ross’ Goose. Surrounded by a dozen Canada Geese twice its size, it seemed perfectly at ease and perfectly out of place loafing around next to the busy parking lot. I squatted in broad daylight on the opposite side of the field, and watched as the whole gang ambled toward me.

Ross' Goose with Canada Goose

The lead goose noticed me, of course, but clearly thought little of me as she blinked slowly and buried her head back down in the grass, deciding to prioritize lunch. Her followers did the same, and while I doubt the Ross’ Goose had ever knowingly chosen to get this close to a human, he seemed ok with it given his bodyguards’ street savvy. I watched him for about 30 minutes as he attacked the lawn with his tiny, blunt block of a beak, and when they all passed me and got to the end of the field, away they flew in search of more lunch. I never saw the Ross’ Goose again.

The same thing happened with Cackling Geese at the Matthew Turner Shipyard Park.

Nine of them grazed amongst the larger Canada Geese, adopting their cousins’ same mild-at-best interest in me as I squatted respectfully yet unapologetically in the middle of their buffet table. Cackling Geese look nearly identical to Canada Geese, but with smaller body portions, higher-pitched vocals, and the occasional white stripe at the base of their neck. These geese were very hard for me to notice at first, given their likeness to Canada Geese, but it got me wondering how frequently I’ve overlooked them.

Cackling Goose walking in front of bushes

Now I’m constantly scanning Benicia’s Canada Geese flocks for bonuses, like Cackling and Ross’ Geese.

Snow Geese and Greater White-Fronted Geese (aka Specklebellies) also frequent the Delta and could easily wander into town, too. Each of these four species struggled to remain viable in their rural habitats in the 20th century. Now, each sighting reminds me of how far these species have come, and how hard our local conservationists have worked to bring their numbers back to the point where we can actually see them overflow their preferred habitats into urban areas. I appreciate the Canada Geese who help make these visitors feel welcome, and hopefully they will continue to adapt and successfully navigate our built environment.

This spring, take an extra gander at the geese in town and consider reporting your observations in a citizen science forum like eBird or iNaturalist. Happy birding!