On Sunday, the same day that I enjoyed a bunch of winter birds in Sullivan County and Ulster County, I also had a chance encounter with a diminutive goose. It was on the side of the road in a field at Blue Chip Farm, a large horse farm near the town of Wallkill. But it wasn’t so easy as driving along, pulling over, spotting the bird, and driving on my merry way.  No, finding a Cackling Goose takes a bit more work than that!

What is a Cackling Goose? A Cackling Goose is a very small Canada Goose, or, at least, it used to be. In 2004, in a long anticipated decision, the American Ornithologists’ Union decided that the tiniest types of the Canada Goose were actually a completely separate species – the Cackling Goose, Branta hutchinsii. Birders everywhere suddenly had added incentive to search through giant flocks of Canada Geese which explains why when I saw a flock of about two hundred Canada Geese in a field at the side of the road at Blue Chip Farm I pulled over and started scoping through them hoping to find something good.

And, sure enough, I found a cackler! How did I pick the one smaller goose out of the flock of bigger geese?  I wasn’t looking at the birds’ body size as I scanned because Canada Geese, even those that are still considered Canada Geese, can be very variable in body size. What I was looking for was a bird with bright white cheeks. For whatever reason, Cackling Geese have cheeks that practically glow and as you scan through a flock of birds the cheek patch can really stand out if you are looking for it.

Even once the geese I was scoping took off and flew into a small pond, joining a host of their closest geese-friends, making a flock of about 1,000 birds, I had no problem finding the Cackling Goose. Do you see that cheek patch glowing in the picture above?  Of course, just having a bright white cheek does not make a goose a cackler. They should be very small, about the size of a Mallard, and have proportionally smaller bills. David Sibley has a great post that gives many of the finer points of Cackling Goose identification.

The main thing you need to do to find a Cackling Goose – or any other rare goose – is to be willing to search patiently through the flocks of Canada Geese that you find. It will make you a better birder and maybe, just maybe, you will be the lucky one who finds a bird like this or this. Even if you don’t you will see remarkable variety in the Canada Geese you find and will gain new appreciation for a very common bird.

Now get out there and get looking for your Cackling Goose!

If you liked this post and want to see more great images of birds make sure to check out 10,000 Clicks, our big (and growing) page of galleries here at 10,000 Birds.

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Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy and Desmond Shearwater. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.