Wait, Watch, Hope

This spring I was anxious to arrive at our northern Wisconsin cabin to see if the orphaned gosling we raised and released last year had returned. Last fall, after Gertie still hadn’t found a buddy, my husband and I dropped her off in central Wisconsin where thousands of geese congregated. She’d be able to choose whether to stay with a flock that migrated or with one that over-wintered. If she chose to migrate, there was a small chance in the spring she’d return to the cabin lake. She had spent more time there than in the Dells, and it’s where she first learned how to fly.

Similar to watching my children take their first steps, I delighted when Gertie pumped her wings and became airborne for the first time. As she got stronger, she flew longer distances. One of the most spectacular memories I have is the moment Gertie flew alongside us in the speed boat. Similar to the drafting of wild geese while in their V-formation, Gertie would take her turn being the lead goose and splitting the headwind, flying just ahead of the boat’s bow. When she needed a break, she’d fall back. It was an incredible human/goose bonding moment and told us she considered us her flock.

As soon as we parked the car, I got out and hurried to the lakeshore. It was nearly dark and the water was calm without any sign of geese. I realized it was silly to be disappointed since the odds were so slim. Still . . .

The following morning I awoke to hear the distinctive loud “honks” of Canada geese. I rushed to the window overlooking the lake. A pair of geese landed in the water, just ahead of our shoreline. They kept vocalizing. It’s rare to see geese on this lake. I’ve only seen one other pair in 40 years. Could this be Gertie showing off her mate?

Two weeks later we returned to the cabin for Memorial weekend. The evening of our arrival I saw shapes swimming toward me. “Duck-duck,” I called in the same sing-song tone I’d used with Gertie and our pet ducks. The shapes became more distinctive. Two adults and five goslings! Over the two weeks we were gone, they’d hatched out their young!

The goose and gander kept the goslings between them. They’re known for being devoted parents. The female lays 2-7 eggs and patiently sits on them for 28 days. She builds a nest lined with plant material and down that she plucks from her body. She keeps the eggs dry even during driving rainstorms and unseasonably cold days and nights.

The male helps out by guarding her and the nest. He’ll attack any predators or anything that threatens their safety. I know this firsthand since I once foolishly bent over to get a closer look at a Chinese goose’s nest, and the gander pinched me. You can guess where.

Later on that day, a second pair of Canada geese swam up to our shore. Unbelievable! Now my mind whirled with questions. Why all the geese? Could one of these be Gertie? Why did this pair have only have two goslings? Had hawks, owls, or snapping turtles gotten the others? Or had it been foxes, raccoons or the bears in the area? How will the two pairs get along? And how did they know that this was a safe haven for them to raise their young?

I realized how little I knew about geese and used my phone to pull up various sites. I found many more incredible facts and one that made me pause.

I learned the correct term is Canada geese, not “Canadian” geese and that they have about 13 different calls. Goslings even peep to their parents while they're still in the egg. I remember Gertie’s happy murmurs when she liked what she was eating. I also remember her greeting me with a loud “honk” and giving an alarm call when a strange dog entered the yard. I continued reading and learned that females choose the nesting spot, so if Gertie was a female, she could have chosen this location.

I looked up from my phone. The adults were keeping guard while their goslings plucked at the grass, insects, and aquatic plants. One of the ganders lowered his thick neck, pumping it in warning after the other gander wandered too close to his family.

A goose led her goslings into the water. After a gosling dunked under, the rest got the idea and joined it. I remember the first time Gertie dove. The family was wading and splashing in the beach area when she decided to join us. She flapped her wings, splashed, and happily dove under. Her excited honks told me she delighted in being with us and showing off her superior skills.

I looked back at my research and read a sentence that made my shoulders slump. “Less than 10% breed as yearlings.” I sighed. Gertie is a yearling. She probably won’t mate until she’s four years old.

It’s unlikely either of these geese are Gertie. Geese often live more than 20 years. I’ll need to be patient.

Meanwhile, I’ll print out those plans for building a Canada goose nest platform. And I’ll get some shelled corn for these growing goslings. They’ll soon be testing out their wings. Who knows, they might even want to join us on a boat ride.

Life will continue, but I’ll be on guard. I’ll watch and wait and hope.

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