Courier file photo

I work at the Jay’s Bird Barn store in Flagstaff every week, which provides me an opportunity to do some bird watching when I am there. As I rolled into Flagstaff Tuesday morning, it was 9 degrees. If you know me very well, you know I do NOT like to be cold. I couldn’t help but wonder why I was willing to go birding on such a frigid morning, but chasing a rare bird sighting is sufficient motivation for me!

Since I am still working on accomplishing my goal of seeing 300 species in the state of Arizona this year, I am willing to go almost anywhere to see something that I haven’t seen already. My target bird Tuesday morning was a cackling goose. You’re not familiar with this species? Well, let me share some information.

For many years, Canada geese were considered one species, with a number of “sub-species,” or “races.” A quick look at an older version of the Sibley guide includes illustrations of several different varieties of Canada geese, including a “typical” Canada goose, a dusky Canada goose, a lesser Canada goose, as well as a Pacific race, an Aleutian race, a Richardson’s race and one called a cackling Canada goose. Who knew identifying a Canada goose could be so difficult?

Several years ago, a decision was made to split the cackling sub-species from Canada goose, and treat the cackling goose as its own, distinct species. Earlier this week, someone posted a sighting of one at Walnut Canyon Ponds in east Flagstaff.

The ponds were probably 80% frozen over, but that didn’t seem to affect the birds too much. There were probably at least 600 Canada geese, one snow goose, one common merganser, two female goldeneyes and a number of ducks, including mallards, canvasbacks, bufflehead, ruddy and, of course, a lot of American coots.

With so many geese on the ponds, it was difficult to determine whether one of them was slightly different than all of the others. Most of the birds were hunkered down on the ice with their heads tucked into their feathers on their backs.

One of the main differences between a cackling goose and a Canada goose is the size of the bird and the size of its beak. Well, I couldn’t see their beaks, and it was difficult to judge size since they were not standing. In the end, I could not see any significant difference in any one goose from the other 600, so I came away empty handed.

In spite of my disappointment of not finding a cackling goose, I did add one species to my 2020 state list this past week. On Friday, I was down in the Valley and I did a little birding along the Salt River at Granite Reef and Coon Bluff, just north of the Loop 202.

My target bird species was a trumpeter swan, and it ended up being an easy find, bringing me to species number 297 for the year. There has been an adult and a juvenile hanging out at Granite Reef for more than a week now, so it was really easy to find them—not to mention they are 60 inches in length and have an 80-inch wingspan!

On my way home Friday, I made another quick stop at Lake Pleasant to look for a Barrow’s goldeneye — again — which has been reported. I struck out (again!) but I did see two common loons, which was a pleasant surprise. I am running out of time, but I am still hoping to reach my goal to see 300 species in Arizona in 2020! Stay tuned.

Until next week, Happy Birding!

Eric Moore is the owner of Jay’s Bird Barn, with two locations in northern Arizona—Prescott and Flagstaff. Eric has been an avid birder for over 50 years. If you have questions about wild birds that you would like discussed in future articles, email him at