Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis)
San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, Modesto, Stanislaus County, California
18 January 2005
Joseph Morlan

Video capture © 16 January 2005 by David Malia. All rights reserved.
After good luck with the Common Black-Hawk in Stockton I decided to look for the Barnacle Goose which had been found and videotaped at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge in Modesto by David Malia, a visiting birder from Maine. The refuge is at the west end of Beckwith Road. I arrived at the observation platform parking lot about 11am and found David Malia checking out the many thousands of Aleutian Cackling Geese (B. hutchinsii leucopareia). It was very cold and windy and he was observing from his car. When I arrived he had not seen the Barnacle Goose nor had he seen it at all since he first found and videotaped it on 16 January. We discussed the bird and he said that on the 16th, he had seen it close to Beckwith road, west of the observation platform. I asked him if the bird was wild. He replied that he didn't know, but that he had spoken to a biologist for US Fish & Wildlife who had asked someone in their department about it and the response was that there is an area of overlap in the ranges of the Barnacle Goose and the Aleutian Cackling Goose suggesting a plausible scenario for the bird being wild. I replied that I didn't think their breeding ranges overlapped at all. He said he didn't know; he was just passing on what he had heard.

I moved to the observation platform and began scanning the many flocks of geese including Snow, Ross's, Greater White-fronted, Canada and Cackling geese. I quickly found and photographed a blue morph Snow Goose fairly close to the platform, but the Barnacle Goose was not in evidence. It was very cold and windy on the platform and observation was difficult. After about an hour of searching, I located the Barnacle Goose well out in the corn field to the west of the platform. It was associating with a mass of Aleutian Cackling Geese and was difficult to keep track of. It moved quite rapidly through the flock and was at a considerable distance.

After watching the bird for several minutes through my scope, I realized that my camera's smart card was full. I wanted to try to digiscope the bird, so I went back to the car to replace the card. Another birder was in the parking lot and I told him about the goose. But by the time we got back to the platform the flock had moved and I was unable to relocate the bird. About 20 minutes later, David Malia returned and said that the bird was back close to the road. I scoped the area and quickly relocated the goose. However, something disturbed the flock; they changed positions and I was unable to relocate the Barnacle Goose despite intensive searching of the area where I had just seen it. Later I drove down Beckwith Road to the west observing the large flocks of geese close to the road, but was unsuccessful in finding the Barnacle Goose again.


A small goose, marginally smaller than nearby Aleutian Cackling Geese. It was decidedly paler and grayer than the Cackling Geese. The back was gray with obvious black cross-bars giving it a scaly appearance. The head was mostly white with a slight cream cast and a dark line connecting the dark eye to the small dark bill. The rest of the head and neck was black extending all the way down to the chest and breast where it was sharply demarcated from the pale gray belly and underparts. The legs appeared dark.


There should not be any question about the identification of this bird. However, the question of natural occurrence is not easily resolved. This was an extremely skittish wild-acting bird. The video posted here is clear enough to reveal no leg bands or other indications of captivity.

There are three distinct populations of Barnacle Goose:

  1. Greenland breeders wintering in Ireland and Scotland
  2. Spitzbergen breeders wintering on Solway and Scotland
  3. Novaya Zemlay birds wintering in the Netherlands.

There is no overlap in the normal breeding ranges of Barnacle Goose and Cackling Goose. However, one could argue that the arctic breeding ranges of Barnacle Goose could give rise to North American vagrants if birds flew in a reverse migration route over the North Pole, ending up and socializing with flocks of North American Cackling Geese and migrating with them. Such a scenario is not out of the question. Nevertheless, the species is widely kept in waterfowl collections and escaped captives might also socialize with flocks of wild migrating Cackling Geese or other species. That scenario is also plausible.

The California Bird Records Committee has reviewed three previous claims of Barnacle Goose from California. All three were accepted on identification, but not accepted on grounds of questionable natural occurrence. The species is thus on California's hypothetical list. The three previous records are as follows:

  1. Early Nov 1984-15 Apr 1985 - Lower Klamath NWR, Siskiyou County
  2. 8 Nov 1997 - Orestimba Creek, vic. Newman, Stanislaus County (photo of privately held specimen)
  3. 1 Jan-10 Jul 1998 - Granite Bay, Placer County

The 1984/1985 record is particularly interesting. The bird associated with flocks of wild Cackling Geese (mostly minima) and was thought to have been the same bird seen not only at Lower Klamath in November 1984, but near Colusa, Colusa County 7-10 December 1984, near Modesto, Stanislaus County 12-21 December 1984, back at Lower Klamath 5-15 April 1985, and at Miller Island in south central Oregon 15-27 April 1985 (Western Birds 21:170-172, 1990; unpublished CBRC data). Note that a bird seen near Anchorage Alaska 22 April-12 May 1985 thought to be the same bird, overlaps the time frame of the Oregon sighting and was actually a different bird. It is not known if a Barnacle Goose seen at Ugashik Bay in Alaska the following year in October 1986 (Bruce Deuel pers. comm.) pertains to one of the individuals from the previous year.

A report from San Leandro, Alameda County photographed 15 December 1992 appears to have been a hybrid between a Barnacle Goose and a Cackling Goose. A photo of that bird is here.