Harteman Wildfowl Aviaries | educating since 1998

Blue Ross' goose nests discovered

by Walter B. Sturgeon (IWWA newsletter, 1988)

Former president of the International Wild Waterfowl Association

 

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Walter Sturgeon holding a wild blue Ross' goose (1992)

On June 16th, 1988, the author found what is believed to be the first blue Ross' goose nest ever observed in the wild. A second nest was found the following day. In both cases the blue Ross' half of the pair was the incubating female. There are two schools of thought as to be the origin of the wild blue phase Ross' goose. They could originate from back crossing of hybrids of Ross' geese and lesser snow geese and/ or Ross' geese mutation of the Ross' goose itself. Lesser snow geese and Ross' geese are thought to have descended from a common ancestor and both species produce polymorphic young. In lesser snow geese the grey phase young develop into adult blue geese but in the Ross' for some reason only white Ross' emerge from all color phases of young except in the very rare case of the blue Ross'. The instance of blue Ross' to white Ross' has been estimated by McLandress as one in ten thousand. Through working with the offspring hatched from one of these nests and the technique of DNA analysis I hope to shed some light on the origin of this color phase. 

 

This discovery came on the 50th anniversary of the finding of the nesting grounds of the Ross' geese by Angus Gavin in 1938. Gavin, manager of the Hudson Bay Company trading post at the mouth of the Perry River, was led by local Eskimos to what was later named Discovery Lake, some 20 miles to the south, where he found Ross' nesting in substantial numbers. It was not until two years later that he was able to get sufficient biological evidence in the hands of biologists to document his discovery. This was the last discovery of the nesting grounds of a North American goose until Bob Elgas discovered the Tule goose nesting area over 40 years later. The area of Gavin's discovery was later to be included in the Queen Maud Gulf Bird Sanctuary, the largest bird refuge in the world at 14 million acres. The blue Ross' was found in the sanctuary at Karrak Lake and on a yet unnamed lake designated Colony 10. The discovery was documented in a matter of minutes with both still and video photography. 

 

The author had been invited as a volunteer to take part in ground truthing operations associated with the 1988 Inventory of Ross' and snow geese in the Central Arctic. The inventory project leader was Richard Kerbes of the Canadian Wildlife Service who was ably assisted by Tony Diamond and Jerry Beyersbergen also of CWS. Kerbes and Beyersbergen had several field seasons each of experience in the area. The effort was split into two parts, an aerial photographic survey and a ground truthing operation. Dick attempted to photograph all known colonies of snow and Ross' geese based on his last survey in 1982. Beyersbergen, Diamond and I worked in parallel to analyze over 8500 nests to determine the ratio of snow and Ross' geese nesting colonially in the same areas. These ratios will be applied to the aerial photographic results to determine the current status of each goose population. It will be sometime before the final results are available but a definite increase in the number of colonies and the size of some of the larger colonies was observed when compared to the 1982 results.

 

I was permitted to collect a small number of Ross' goose eggs including three from one of the blue Ross' nests for my own captive research purposes. 

It was my hope that the type of exchange I was able to experience between field biologist and aviculturist can be developed into a more formal program under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan and that many other people can benefit from such an experience. I will report on the survey and my collection and research activities at our upcoming convention in Atlanta this fall. 

 

The story continues - 2021

By Walter Sturgeon

August 27th 2021

 

I never bred the birds that came from the eggs I collected in 1988. The one female gosling was an obvious hybrid and I decided not to breed her even before she was killed by a predator which took away the opportunity anyway. The other eggs did not hatch but did have blue goslings in them. I still have the bird that was killed and the unhatched eggs thinking that at some point DNA would solve the mystery of whether the blue phase Ross' geese are a hybrid or a mutation. I also drew blood from about 20 blue phase Ross' that I trapped at a Karrak Lake for DNA analysis. Those samples came home with a researcher who had a permit to import blood samples. They were supposed to be stored there until DNA was refined enough to tell the difference between Ross' & lesser snow geese who have a common ancestor. As I now understand we can differentiate them but no one can find the samples. Whoever said that science was easy. It would make a good graduate student research project.

 

With respect to the blue Ross' in Europe I doubt that they originated from wild birds. The Canadian Wildlife Service was not issuing permits to collect birds in the wild for anything other than research at the time they showed up in Europe. The marking on these European bred birds just never looked right to me. Take along that picture of the blue Ross' I am holding the next time you visit a collection and I think you will see what I mean. The other thing I have noticed that they all seem to be large for Ross' geese and the ones I have seen lack the warting on the face. 

 

The blue birds had been seen on the wintering grounds in the central valleys of California and that information had been published prior to the nest discovery. I have seen blue Ross in New Mexico and in northern Mexico. The thought is that one in 10,000 Ross geese are blue phase so there should be about 100 birds out there somewhere in the wild.

 

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Blue phase Ross' geese in a European collection (Harteman, 2019)

 


 

Photographs of wild blue phase Ross' geese

Taken by Walter Sturgeon

 

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Blue phase Ross' goose (Sturgeon, 1988)

 

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Blue phase Ross' goose (Sturgeon, 2011)

 

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Blue phase Ross' goose (Sturgeon, 2011)

 

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Blue phase Ross' goose (Sturgeon, 2011)

 

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Blue phase Ross' goose (Sturgeon, 2011)

 

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Blue phase Ross' goose (Sturgeon, 2011)

 

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Blue phase Ross' goos (Sturgeon)

 

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Blue phase Ross' gosling (left) and white phase gosling (right) in one nest (Sturgeon)

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