As I headed out the door on The Quest for 500, the light rain that constitutes fog in San Francisco, was heavy, making visibility limited to a few blocks. I wondered how I was going to find a needle in the haystack, a single goose among thousands of other geese, in a thick blanket of fog.
As I headed north into Marin County, blue sky started to appear over Mt. Tam. I was on my way to pick up DICK and then we headed northeast on Highway 12, past the riverside town of Rio Vista to green fields, framed by a levee to pick through the thousands of greater white-fronted and cackling geese. Our prize was a pied-headed marine goose that usually forages through the tidal flats on the islands of the Bering Sea, where it breeds, and winters on the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. A few individuals wander south to Washington and Oregon and an even fewer number, the needles, head farther south into California. Since 1884 there have been only 38 accepted sightings in California. This was the quest for the Emperor goose.
We had a vague idea where the goose might be, other birders had whiffed on it earlier in the week and our best case scenario would be that we come upon a group of birders that already had the Emperor in their scopes and we check it off our lists. Once we turned off Highway 12 I was surprised to find only one Prius load of birders. It looked like we had to find this goose on our own.
Over the vast green fields we could see little grouped specks as far as the eye could see. This was going to be a tough lifer.We turned right on the levee road, Seven Mile Slough to our left and the fields to our right. A herd of sheep grazing the hill appeared to the right. On one sheep was a “sheep” egret, a small white bird that associates with livestock. Lifer for DICK.
The “sheep” egret on its movable perch, otherwise known as cattle egret, Bubulicus ibis.
We stopped every time we saw a flock of foraging geese and scanned the groups for the beacon. No luck. We approached a turn in the road, leading back north towards Highway 12. We stopped and surveyed the vast mass of geese that were forging on either side of the power poles that bisected the field. They were close enough that we didn’t need a scope but there were a lot of geese to pick through. The tall green grass and the up and down feeding dance of the geese made our search even more difficult.
Five minutes into the search DICK said, “I’m looking at your 500th lifer!” I raised my glasses and looked at the flock of geese just to the left of the power pole. The Emperor raised it’s head like a beacon of light, standing out, an exclamation point that announced itself amid all the white-fronted and cackling geese. Life bird No. 500!
Corvidsketcher looking at life bird No. 500, Emperor goose, Chen canagica.
We were soon joined by another birder and his two dogs. Then another and another car stopped to see the goose. One couple, Nevada Bob and his wife, had left Nevada a 6 AM to see the Emperor. In all we we had great looks with the sun at our backs for about 30 minutes until something spooked the birds and the flock erupted into the air and the geese and the needle disappeared. The show was over.
Like the Emerpor’s unique head and neck, a contrast of black and white, light and dark, the experience was also mixed with pathos. Directly across the creased and pock-marked levee road from where we found the Emperor was a handmade wooden cross with the name Tony Paul Ludricks painted across the top. I later learned that on May 24, 2015, a car veered off the levee road and into the slough. The 20 year old passenger was able to swim to safety but the driver was not so lucky. Tony was 16 years old.