The Story of a Goose

by Rex Burress

I had noticed the Canada Goose on the river pond during the summer of 2001. The handsome black-necked bird seemed to have a broken wing and, as the days went on, I was sure it was stranded on the narrow lake formed by the river's Fish Barrier Dam. It was alone. Apparently other geese were afraid to land on the narrow body of water where rocky cliffs border both sides that harbor predators. I suspected the flock that flies up and down the river had swerved too low causing one to hit the power line stretched across the channel.

As summer faded into autumn, I began to watch that goose almost daily, curious about its predicament and adaptation to an unusual habitat for a open-space, marsh-loving waterfowl. Well acquainted with Canada Geese from my long connection with them at the Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge, I was sure this one was a female, and I dubbed her Henrietta. She reminded me of the Canadas at the Oakland city refuge where half a dozen wing-cripples had been established in the 1950's and went on to flourish, raising goslings successfully on the duck islands until over a thousand called the sanctuary home by year 2000.

Winter arrived, and I continued to check on Henrietta almost daily, since that body of water flowed just above the Feather River Nature Center that I was involved with. Somehow I was worried about her survival where fox, coyote, and even human hunters lurked along the cliff-side perimeters of that dark pond. I felt a pang of sympathy every time I saw her poking along the shoreline grasses and sitting on her little rock island just off shore. It was smart to select that spot for the long winter night, although there was exposure to fierce storms that descended, and I marveled about the efficiency of those wondrous feathers that sheltered the goose body.

I would see a flock of geese fly over, and Henrietta would open her defective wings, honk, and watch intently but no one would drop down. She was on her own, a lonely lone goose on her lonely pond where beaver prowled by night, chewing on the sycamores, and otter cruised the shallows. Was there any sleep in the dark when nocturnal nightmares roamed? A pair of Pied-billed Grebes seemed to adopt the goose, and they always seemed to be together. I couldn't imagine the relationship of a tiny diving bird and the grazing goose. A few mergansers would probe those depths during the day, and a Great Blue Heron perched regularly on the shoreline rocks. Some deer along the edge, Black Phoebes, and an occasional kingfisher made up Henrietta's world.

Then one day along toward spring, I met Peter Maki along the "Sewim Bo" river path, and he said there were two geese on the pond! I hurried up there, and sure enough, Henrietta had a friend! It looked like a male Canada as he stood at rapt attention, and they edged higher onto the grass than I had seem before. In fact, another pair of Canadas had appeared, fussing over a patch of grass on the rocks as if contemplating a nest site. What an encouraging turn of events for Henrietta!

Two days later I was leading a nature walk along the shore and was eager to point out the goose drama. But I could see no goose as I swept the entire mile-long pond with my binoculars. How strange. I was sure Henrietta couldn't fly so what had happened. Was "Henry" involved? I could imagine him saying, "Hen, you can't stay here in this scary place. Fly with me."  "But I can't fly, Henry. Don't leave me. I've had such a lonely winter."

Three days later I was making my Sunday morning walk along the parkway farther down the river, and in the great riverbend, I found the answer to the goose disappearance. Henry and Henrietta had flown the coop! Or at least they had proceeded down-river, somehow getting over the Fish Barrier Falls, passing under the Table Mountain Bridge and over the Bedrock Park rapids.

The Diversion Dam upstream, and the thirty foot drop at Fish Barrier Falls at the lower end of the pond, had kept Henrietta confined for nearly eight months. I could imagine the dilemma. "Come on, let's leave here." And she had been led to try it - go over the falls!

She must have popped over like a cork, but love conquers all, and evidently she had found her man.

I watched them swimming along the opposite shoreline, and Henry was plainly plenty worried. A walker with her dog, people moving in nearby River Bend Park, and me with my binoculars. Henrietta found a patch of grass along the bank and stepped out, nibbling and exclaiming over her find. "Look Henry, a good spot to rest and eat." But he took off in a great splash, lifting dramatically over the river, but Henrietta called out in a plaintive honk: "Henry don't leave me! You've followed me this far and we can find a home and raise our family."

Henry was evidently hooked. He turned in midair and returned in a swishy landing. It is touching the way geese show concern for each other, and it is claimed that Canada Geese mate for life. What would their life be, stranded on the river where the restless current flows continually? Where danger lurks along the edge, and flood might tear through the basin?

I left them there, paddling down the river. I wanted to call out: "Look! It's me! The man who watched you all winter. I'm your friend." But there was no sign of recognition other than watching me intently. No honk of hello.

Maybe they will make it to the valley where they could walk over to a marsh. Will they find a place to nest? Henry and Henrietta were on a cruise of adventure, sailing down the river, meeting challenge after challenge - maybe finding a beautiful paradise ... or be protected by some kind-hearted farmer or birdwatcher. Henrietta has left my life, and I can only wave and say bon voyage. It was good knowing you. The river pond will indeed be lonely with the absence of the Canada Goose saga.

© 2002 Rex Burress
March 4, 2002