Bean Goose Taxonomy

There is a rare goose wintering with Canada and Cackling Geese at the Nestucca NWR in Tillamook Co. this season. It was discovered by an alert refuge volunteer on 9 November and has since been observed by (probably) 100’s of bird-watchers. The goose is an Asian stray called a Tundra Bean Goose (Anser serrirostris). It is the fifth occurrence of this species in North America away from Alaska, if you believe the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) and Dutch taxonomists…

There are many taxonomists who lump the Tundra Bean Goose with the very closely related Taiga Bean Goose (A. fabalis), in fact, the AOU considered them conspecific until 2007 when they made the split based primarily on work done by Dutch researchers. Using established differences in plumage, bill measurements, vocalizations and behavior, birds could be sorted with high reliability to one or the other of the two forms.

When these forms were banded and followed to their breeding grounds, it was found that they positively assorted to different breeding locations east and west of the Ural Mountains. The two types were recognizable forms and were reproductively isolated, which is pretty good evidence that they are different species (Sangster and Oreel 1996). But the Dutch research did not include any DNA work.

That work has since been done, but not by the Dutch. Ruokonen, et al. (2008) sampled mtDNA from multiple Bean Goose forms and Pink-footed Geese on their breeding grounds. Their data supports the distinction between Taiga and Tundra Bean Geese, but their interpretation of the distinction is that the differences do not rise to the level of species and conclude that the two types should be demoted to (or remain) subspecies within a single species complex.

Ruokonen, Litvin and Aarvak 2008

Ruokonen, Litvin and Aarvak 2008

On the other hand, they do recommend the elevation of Middendoff’s Bean Goose, which is currently considered a subspecies of Taiga Bean Goose, to full species status.

Does this mean that the AOU will be lumping Bean Geese sometime soon? I don’t know, but I have my doubts. The two forms are clearly on separate evolutionary trajectories, show reliably recognizable difference at the phenotypic and mtDNA levels and are reproductively isolated. Defining species solely based on degree of mtDNA differentiation is controversial.

Washington State has a record for Taiga Bean Goose from 2002, so there are some birders who might be sweating a lumping scenario relative life-list countability. Then again, it may be determined that the Washington bird was a Middendorf’s form (odds are good that it was), in which case the AOU giveth, the AOU taketh away and then they giveth, again…

Banks, R.C., R.T. Cheeser, C. Cicero, J.L. Dunn, A. W. Kratter, I.J. Lovette, P.C. Rassussen, J.V. Remsen, J.D. Rising and D.F. Stotz. 2007. Forty-eighth supplement to the American Onithologists’ Union Check-list of North American Birds. Auk 124(3):1109-1115.

Howell, S.N.G., I. Lewington, and W. Russell. 2014. Rare Birds of North America. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Madge, S and H. Burn. 1988. Waterfowl: an identification guide to ducks, geese and swans of the World. Houghton-Mifflin, Boston, MA.

Ruokonen, M., K. Litvin, and T. Aarvak. 2008. Taxonomy of the bean goose – pink-footed goose. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 48:554-562.

Ruokonen, M. and T. Aarvak. 2011. Typology revisited: historical taxa of the bean goose – pink-footed goose complex. Ardea 99(1):103-112.

Sangster, G. and G.Oreel. 1996. Trends in systematics: progress in the taxonomy of Taiga and Tundra Bean Geese. Dutch Birding 18:310-316.

Slow down, you bird too fast…

I am becoming increasingly finicky, as I get older, about how I spend my time and one of the places where I don’t like spending a lot of time is in my car driving somewhere. Even short trips to the South Jetty or Brownsmead have become a chore.  I’ve discovered that when I bird by car, I tend to develop a “nothing to see here, move along” attitude that I don’t have when I commit to a walk.  There’s something about being in a car that promotes that feeling that maybe, just maybe, there’s a place up around the corner that’s more happening than the place I’m at.  Driving makes me impatient.  Driving makes me hurry.

And that’s why, this last Friday, I decided to have a no car weekend then took the scenic route to the Post Office (red route) on foot.  2hrs 25mins, 7.1km, 25 bird species.

I failed to find the Tropical Kingbird even though I walked the entirety of Alameda Ave (it was seen the next day by others), but had a good time taking pictures of other stuff.

On Saturday I walked to Wireless Rd (blue route), 3hrs, 55min, 11.8km, 54 species.  Crazy PINE SISKIN numbers.  I found a big flock of AMERICAN PIPITS and momentarily mistook a very noisy WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW as a Swamp Sparrow…

Today I went east to the Astoria Sewage Ponds (green route), I forgot to put my knee brace on.  It made me slow down even more, but not in a good way, 5hrs, 25mins, 11.6km, 52 species.  Old Bulldog…


Walking allows me to check the shrubbery, follow the chickadees, poke around in spots that wouldn’t otherwise get poked in if I was driving by.  Walking puts me in touch with my place.  Walking makes me slow down and notice things.

Early morning visitor

Teresa had just gone out the door and off to work, but popped back in almost immediately, “come here, there’s something on the wire…”

In distributional terms, Barred Owl is a fairly recent arrival.  The first birds in Oregon were reported in the early 1970′s.  I started finding dead ones along roadsides or washed up on the beach in Clatsop County in the mid-90′s and didn’t actually see a live one until 2008 (though I’d been hearing them for a couple years prior). It’s one of Michelle’s favorite bird calls to do.  We would regularly get them talking (though never saw them) up in the Irving Forest when trail-blazing the route between the Column and the Cathedral Tree.

Now we have one on our yard-list.

A close encounter

I went out to the South Jetty of the Columbia River this morning to inventory phalaropes blown in by the current bit of weather.  I got there around 9:30.  The wind was blowing at a steady 20mph, but the rain had stopped so I put on my boots and walked out onto the salt marsh.  I saw a jaeger coming in from the northeast over the dunes.

I figured I was pretty lucky and started to snap some pictures.  I noted through the viewfinder that it was heading straight at me.  Cool.

Then it came right up to me and started kiting in the wind.  Close enough to touch.  Too close for the camera lens.  I reached up.  It looked at my hand.  I fought the urge to snatch it out of the air.  It fought the urge to bite me…

jaeger eyeing my fingers

The whole encounter seemed like several minutes, though it was probably much less.  Then the jaeger broke to its right and flew past me.

I was pretty excited and looked up to see if there was anyone in the parking lot who might have seen that jaeger and me together, but there’s never a smartphone shutterbug around when you really need one.  The parking lot was empty.  The jaeger made a sweep around the tidal channels then turned around and it all happened a second time as if the jaeger felt the need to reassure me that it had all really happened.

I have no idea what this bird was thinking when it came in to check me out.  The demeanor was not antagonistic or defensive.  It appeared to be simple curiosity.

I saw a second jaeger a few minutes later who didn’t pay me any mind.  I also counted 64 RED PHALAROPES and a single RED-NECKED PHALAROPE, 3 SEMIPALM- ATED PLOVERS and a couple DUNLIN.

It was a good day.


Seawatch – 10/26/2014

There was a pretty good storm late Saturday and into pre-sunrise Sunday morning.  Sunday sunrise broke showery with a west wind.  It was a good day to go seawatching for birds that would normally be out in the deeper ocean, but last night blown inland by the weather.

So Michelle and I hopped into the car and drove south to Silver Point, a view point along Hwy 101 at the south end of Cannon Beach.

We arrived at 07:50.  The light conditions were early morning dim, but held the promise of a not too rainy day.  We began the watch.  The protocol is not really that complicated: stand in one spot, scan the ocean, identify birds as they go by.

Northern Fulmars… lots of fulmars, scoters, loons… lots of loons, mostly Pacific Loons… gulls… more loons.

Then the odd kittiwake went by, not more than 20 minutes into the watch.

Kittiwakes have a particular look and behavior that is reliably distinctive.  The buoyant flight style of a small gull or tern and ink-dipped wingtips that show almost no trace of white, but this bird was darker looking and maybe a bit small; uniform gray from above all the way to the black wingtips and there were the dusky looking under-wings.  These were the field marks of the wrong kittiwake…

Black-legged Kittiwakes are pretty common on the North Coast in the fall and winter.  On a good, stormy day 100′s can be seen off the Columbia River.  Young Black-legged Kittiwakes have a diagnostic black “M” shape on the upper wings formed by the leading primaries and wing coverts.  Adults are gray above with paler inner parts to the primaries and those ink-dipped wingtips.  Their under-wings are white in both 1st winter youngsters and winter adults.

Black-legged Kittiwake

Seawatching is all about letting go of what just went by and staying focused for the next bird.  It is very rare for birds to linger long enough for a second look and even rarer that they are close enough for proper photo documentation.  I was left to make a quick sketch of what I saw and get back to watching.  And I saw plenty of Black-legged Kittiwakes over the next 2 hours.  None of them looked like this first, singular bird.  It kind of had to be the other kittiwake.  The rare one:  RED-LEGGED KITTIWAKE.  There are currently 10 accepted records for Oregon (including one that was found in Jewell and brought to the rehab center).  I’m not sure I got a big enough piece of this bird to pass muster with the OBRC.

Over rest of the morning we built up a list of 44 species with spectacular numbers of California Gulls and Pacific Loons.  We saw Elegant Terns, Common Terns, Sabine’s Gull and Bonaparte’s Gulls.  All kinds of good stuff.  The complete list is HERE.

Other folks, at other locations along the coast also saw plenty of interesting seabirds.

After two and a half hours of watching, we drove back to Astoria and I went chasing a Tropical Kingbird.

A day at the beach

I had not actually planned to leave the house today, given the weather report and plenty of stuff to do at home, but Steve called with a report of millions of pink things washing up on the beach and the weather didn’t look all that bad yet…

So I went out to Sunset Beach to look for pink things.  And the first things I saw when I got to the beach were zillions of mysterious pink animals and a dead Cassin’s Auklet.

Not too much further down the beach I found a dead CACKLING GOOSE (and zillions of pink things).

Those pink things when you get up close to them look like this:

My “mysterious pink thing” guys tell me they are some sort of PEANUT WORM.

[Update 10/18/2014] Not all the “mysterious pink thing” guys are in agreement that these are sipunculans.  The presence of longitudinal grooves, visible in the close-ups, suggest they are little pink sea cucumbers (holothurians).

Higher up the beach, away from the new wrack line and the pink things, I found this:

The early storms of fall are often the hardest on birds in the midst of migrating from one spot to another, finding themselves in an inconvenient spot in the rain, in the dark.  These birds have not died in vain, however.  A host of other species depend on these lost individuals for their own winter survival: eagles, hawks, corvids, coyotes, mustelids, even Sanderlings will pick at a dead bird on the beach.

I walked about a kilometer and a half before turning inland and back to the car through the piney woods.  It’s mushroom season and soon my attention was diverted away from mysterious pink things by other distractions.


Goosey, goosey gander

In the 45th supplement to the American Ornithologist Union Checklist of North American Bird (2004) the complex of white-cheeked geese formerly known as Canada Geese was split into big ones (still called Canada Goose) and small ones (Cackling Goose). The split followed splits that had been made several years earlier in Europe for the complex and brought the North American checklist in line with other international taxonomic opinion.

There are considerable morphological and behavioral differences separating the big geese from the small geese, but the primary basis for sorting geese into two species level clads was genetic data which relied heavily on mtDNA. This is genetic information found in the mitochondria of cells and is passed on through the maternal line. Changes in mtDNA occur more slowly over time and are not subject to the effects of hybridization. This makes mtDNA analysis a good tool for measuring differences between species on the broad scale. From this analysis white-cheeked geese breakdown like this:

On the basis of mtDNA, the decision to split big Canada Geese from small Canada Geese seems well grounded.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the story stopped there?

Speciation is driven by natural selection and reproductive isolation.  In the case of white-cheeked geese, especially small forms, reproductive isolation has everything to do site fidelity to the places they choose to breed.  Aleutian Geese breed in very different places than minima geese and this restricts gene flow.  The distribution of mtDNA haplotypes is strongly associated with breeding ground distribution and reflects reproductive isolation.  On the other hand, natural selection occurs over the entire range of a goose including the winter grounds and there are very distinct advantages to looking like all the other geese in a flock in the winter, independent of species.  White-cheeked geese most probably all look alike (at least superficially) for an adaptive reason.

But there’s more.

We can’t see the differences in mtDNA, because they are not morphologically expressed.  We depend on the morphological differences expressed by nuclear DNA to tell geese apart and the factors affecting nuclear DNA are more complicated than those that affect mtDNA.  Natural variation within populations creates overlap of morphological characters.  Some big geese at the small end of the scale and small geese at the big end of the scale are very difficult (if not impossible) for non-geese to tell apart when away from the breeding grounds and this is, in part, because there may be selective pressure that favors looking the same.

The influence of males on gene flow is not expressed in mtDNA, but genetic material from males contribute half of the genes found in nuclear DNA.  Male geese are more likely to wander.  Male geese are more likely to find themselves on the wrong breeding grounds.  Male genes may well be the reason why birds at the boundary between Taverner’s type Cackling Geese and Lesser Canada Geese are so gosh-darn hard to sort out even though the data we see from the mtDNA, which follows the deeper maternal relationships, says otherwise (Mowbray, et al 2002).

So let’s recap:

1. The white-cheeked goose complex was split into two species based on mtDNA differences which are inherited through the female only.   These differences positively assort on the breeding grounds which are reproductively isolated from other goose types by geography.

2. Large-form and small-form species may look alike, because there is a selective advantage to looking like other birds in a mixed species flock on the wintering grounds.

3. Gene flow at the nuclear DNA level, contributed by wandering males, may create morphotypes not reflected in the underlying mtDNA genetics, producing individuals that cannot be sorted reliably to large-form or small-form categories.

At the end of all this, we need to remember that taxonomist (and especially molecular taxonomists) are asking very different questions about species and speciation than you and I are and they are under no obligation to produce results that are convenient or easy for birders.  We can be frustrated.  We can change the rules for bird listing so that birders use a different, easier definition of what counts on a life-list, but we’re not going to change the way taxonomist see the world or the way white-cheeked geese behave.


Banks, Richard C.; Cicero, Carla; Dunn, Jon L.; Kratter, Andrew W.; Rasmussen, Pamela C.; Remsen Jr., J. V.; Rising, James D.; Stotz, Douglas F. 2004. FORTY-FIFTH SUPPLEMENT TO THE AMERICAN ORNITHOLOGISTS’ UNION CHECK-LIST OF NORTH AMERICAN BIRDS. Auk (American Ornithologists Union); Vol. 121 Issue 3, p985.

Mowbray, Thomas B., Craig R. Ely, James S. Sedinger and Robert E. Trost. 2002. Canada Goose (Branta canadensis), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

Paxinos, Ellen E., Helen F. James, Storrs L. Olson, Michael D. Sorenson, Jennifer Jackson, and Robert C. Fleischer. 2002. mtDNA from fossils reveals a radiation of Hawaiian geese recently derived from the Canada goose (Branta canadensis). Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences 99(3):1399-1404.

I just picked up a lifer…

As all of you know by now, I have lots of lists, many of which do not conform with the official ABA listing rules.  I was able to put LAYSAN ALBATROSS on my birds I’ve seen alive, birds I’ve touched, birds I have photos of and birds I’ve been bitten by lists this past March when a bird, recovered from a barge in Columbia County, was brought into rehab at the North Coast Wildlife Center.

Laysan Albatross - 3/1/2014

I was also invited to participate in the release and got to see it fly away.

Laysan Albatross - 3/15/2014

The ABA, however, did not allow for the inclusion of birds released from rehabilitation (though one could count them while they sat dying on the beach or roadside).  So, I had Laysan Albatross on all my important lists, but did not (could not) include it on the ABA list, the one everybody else seems to place the most importance in.

Well that has now officially changed.  Rehabbed birds can now be counted on one’s life-list by those who witness the release.  So, I just gained a new bird on my official ABA life-list by fiat.

In other life-list news those of you who’ve seen California Condors or Aplomado Falcons “in the wild” (post captive breeding program) may now pretend like they’ve been successfully and permanently re-established in the wild and count them on your ABA list.

The ABA blog has the breakdown for these new rule changes.