My heart drops into my stomach when my wife and I approach one particular would-be mother Canada goose sitting atop her clutch in a nest along Sligo Creek: three of her five eggs have somehow ended up submerged in water a foot to her left. The other two remain in the nest.
Panic sets in – for me, at least. The goose is calm, either because she has already dealt with the tragedy, or because geese don’t get as emotional as I do.
She and her mate are about 25 feet away. I stare down through the clear water at the eggs buried in the sandy bottom of the creek. Questions race through my mind: How long have the eggs been underwater? How long can they survive like that? Should I try to scoop them out and put them back in the nest? I promised myself when we started this project that I wouldn’t try to interfere with the laws of nature.
This is the first time I’ve been put to the test, though; the first that I could take an action that breaks the laws and alters life on the creek.
“What do we do?” I cry out to Won-ok as I pace, frantically. “What do we do?”
She has no idea, either.
We’ve been watching this Mama Goose day and night since April – visiting her multiple times a day and studying round-the-clock footage from the trail camera we placed at a safe distance from her nest. A scientific research permit we obtained from Montgomery County to operate the camera is allowing us unfettered access to this goose, enabling us to document what her life is like when no humans are around. Our hope with the Mama Goose Project is to follow our mom-to-be goose from the moment she builds to her nest to the day her adorable goslings waddle out into the world.
Perhaps we’ll even be able to inspire more people to care about Canada geese — and lessen the anger that some people feel toward the birds. Some get upset about the poop that the birds drop on the ground. Others get miffed by traffic hazards, water quality and the damaged vegetation they can leave behind when they visit lawns and sports fields.
Most people, including us, really don’t know that much about Canada geese, however, even though they have a long history in the county and throughout Maryland. They live here year-round and have done so, according to a Maryland Department of Natural Resources report, since humans brought 41 members of the species over from the Midwest in the 1930s. Some Eastern shore geese do fly to Canada to nest but most of Maryland’s geese are descendants of the transplants – birds that weren’t able to learn how to migrate north.
Won-ok and I, meanwhile, dream that our work is going to be all Bambi and Winnie The Pooh.
Today’s nerve-rattling discovery is yet more evidence that it’s not.
The life of this one goose in Silver Spring, Maryland, is full of hope and hardship – moments of exquisite tenderness followed by extreme terror. The harried life of this one goose is also twisting my intestines. What will become of her and the few other pair of nesting Canada geese that live among the 35 or so adults who call the ponds home?
Won-ok and I debate the sunken eggs question for 15 minutes before reaching a verdict. We decide not to intervene, fearing that another law – that of unintended consequences – might overrule even the most well-intentioned action we take. We can almost sense it wasting little time before laughing in our faces and causing more destruction than we hope to prevent.
The still photographs and 30-second blasts of video from the trail camera provide no clues about how or why the eggs moved. The camera has worked like a charm since day one, but it somehow fails to capture how three large eggs moved 12 inches and sank into the water by the stormwater runoff ponds located behind the Kemp Mill Shopping Center (a short walk from University Boulevard). A photo does show one of the eggs sitting halfway between the nest and the water, with Mama Goose standing in between.
We don’t sleep much that night, anxiety tossing us around like socks in a washing machine.
Time To Call An Expert
I stagger to my feet the next morning with a realization: It’s time to consult experts if we’re going to keep documenting life in the wild and developing our skills as amateur naturalists. I also need to brace myself for whatever may come next.
The first person I reach? Noelia Schmidt, a Montgomery Parks natural resources specialist in the Wildlife Ecology and Management Unit.
I use the first of several phone calls to ask her a laundry list of questions aimed at helping us understand what we’re witnessing. Did Mama Goose sense that something had gone wrong inside the eggs – and push them out herself?
“A female can tell when eggs are no longer viable,” she explains, “so it is possible, and I have seen these occasions, where a goose clearly pushed out her eggs.”
I grit my teeth when I bring up the drowning eggs.
“It may seem heartbreaking but the best thing to do is to allow nature to run its course,” Schmidt says. “You did the right thing.”
I exhale. Relief — sort of.
Nerves calm, I begin to share a stream of other moments in “our” goose’s life – starting with the day we first met her and fell head-over-boot-heels in love with her. It was early April of this year. The first nesting goose we saw in the area built a nest to the left of the one our Mama Goose was making. (We filmed a video of her fine-tuning her nest and sitting on her clutch of a half dozen or so eggs.)
Left-side goose and her eggs disappeared overnight – gone with the wind. No trace of them left behind. No clues about what happened to them.
The same was true for the nesting goose to the right of ours. A nest full of a half-dozen eggs one day, then gone by sunrise. (Canada geese begin nesting when they are a few years old and can lay up to 15 eggs at a time but five is the average number.) We don’t know if these two nests have been deserted, as is common when large numbers geese build nests in higher densities – or if predators have already raided them.
Middle goose, meanwhile, is catching up on her construction project. We train our attention, and our new trail camera, on her.
“Sweet Mama” and “Sharky”
“Hey, Sweet Mama!” I call out to her in a gentle, high-pitched voice.
The greeting sticks, and I use on every visit we make. It’s how I open each conversation with her. I have a habit of speaking out loud to things that I realize can’t talk back – at least not in a traditional sense. Mostly, I just want them to know that I care, and that I’m not a threat.
Mama Goose takes to me fairly quickly as I sit on a fallen log, ask her how she’s doing, and tell her that I’m glad to see her. Won-ok crouches behind a tree and takes photos.
“I’d be bored to death if I had to sit there all day like Mama Goose,” Won-ok tells me, “but she does it. It’s amazing.”
I am awestruck by the goose’s work ethic.
Both in-person and on the trail camera footage, she is in almost perpetual motion. She uses her beak and neck to grab unending blades of grass, straw and twigs to fortify the nest. It’s like watching a crane pick up beams and deposit them atop a city building. Her nest seems to be about the same size as the two empty ones – 23 inches in diameter with an inner, egg-holding basin of about 10 inches.
Her neck is as hypnotizing as it is odd. Most of the geese in the woods have thin necks with feathers that are perfectly groomed and slicked down. Mama Goose’s girthy neck is always disheveled, with clumps of feathers that appear ruffled in every direction. She looks like she has just stepped out of a hot shower.
How much more can she do? I wonder in my head, only to watch her pick, drop and pat down over and over.
“They are hard workers,” Schmidt affirms. “They can be on the nest between February and June. That’s a long time.”
The females – including the other breeding pairs we’re also observing — do all the work, too. They pick out the sites and build the nests.
I feel like a slacker as I just sit on the log and study her — especially her sweet face with a white patch resembling a 1970s NFL helmet chinstrap. I’m slowly starting to be able to recognize a few individual Canada geese by the white patches on their cheeks, which, it turns out, are actually called chinstraps. I call Mama Goose’s mate “Sharky,” because his chinstrap looks like a shark’s dorsal fin.
It takes Sharky a while to warm up to my charm, but we get there. I respect his preferred personal space. He opens his bill and sticks out his tongue only to ward off other intruders, not me. “Hey, Papa!” I call out to him each day.
He looks at me with an expression I interpret as meaning that he wishes I had more human friends to hang out with.
Sharky at first strikes me as a little lazy, letting his mate do all the work. He picks up the slack, however, the moment she drops the eggs. Papa Goose turns into Guard Dog, puffing his chest and flexing his five-foot wingspan to ward off any and all predators that threaten the future of his family. Won-ok and I appear to be more scared than he is when multiple raccoons try to sneak up on the nest in the middle of the night. Our trail cam captures some tense video of him chasing them away and stopping them from stealing the eggs.
“The male goose stands guard,” Montgomery Parks’ Schmidt tells me, while also directing me to an excellent county parks publication about living with geese. “He scares off anything he thinks might be a threat. If the female is sitting on the nest while he’s away and a predator comes up, she’ll call – sounding an alert – and all of a sudden, you see the male goose come flying out of nowhere.”
Won-ok and I have witnessed what the naturalist describes. It’s almost cartoonish – Papa Goose jetting in from out of nowhere, flying so fast that he’s a blur until he jams on the breaks. (Geese can cruise at 40 miles per hour – and 70 with a strong tailwind.) All that’s missing are sound effects.
Mama Goose shows how fierce she is, too, running off other masked marauders on her own, the trail cam catching it all. My wife and I cling to each other like terrified teenagers watching a horror movie in a theater.
Lighter Moments, Innocent Mistakes
Days and weeks go by. Levity returns.
We watch all the geese in this section of the woods as they eat, and eat, and eat some more. Canada geese can feed up to 12 hours a day to consume enough nutrients. And I thought I was a snacker.
Over on the berm above the two ponds where humans frequently gather to watch a variety of birds, I witness a family pull out bags of potato chips and crackers and fling them at the geese. I politely explain to them in Spanish that feeding waterfowl is harmful — that it’s bad for their stomachs and makes geese dependent on people.
“I’m sorry,” a mother responds. “I didn’t know.”
There is a small sign at the start of the berm by the trail but it’s easy to miss. I make a mental note to ask Montgomery County Parks if it has bigger signs with easier-to-understand graphics. Bilingual signs in English and Spanish like the department uses elsewhere would be helpful, too. Maybe this is also something I can take up with the hard-working volunteers at Friends of Sligo Creek. We’re big fans of its work, especially the Weed Warriors invasive species removal projects it partners with the county to undertake.
One of my favorite parts of each day comes about an hour before the sun sets. Mama Goose gathers some down feathers and makes a warm blanket to tuck in the clutch. She steps away to grab bites of skunk cabbage and grass, then returns to settle in for the night. I can almost set my watch by her — if I didn’t use my phone to tell time.
Mama Goose is so comfortable around us now that she often looks our way and then takes a nap. She sleeps while standing on one leg, sometimes with her neck stretched back and her head pointing back at her tailfeathers. She rests her head between her scapular plumes.
The trail cam provides some smiles as well.
Several deer become fascinated with our goose. One in particular lowers her head almost to Mama Goose’s eye level and bobs her head up and down, while Mama does the same. Neither makes a sound or is alarmed. They just eyeball each other and perhaps contemplate who is best suited to stake claim to that spot of the creek. Commenters on our website and Eye on Sligo Creek Facebook page point out that the encounters may be a little more serious than they seem, suggesting that a battle for water rights may be brewing.
Won-ok and I have been thrilled by all the conversation developing around our site and social media. (Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube and share your thoughts with us.) We initially hoped to build a greater sense of community around our beloved Sligo Creek. What we’re finding, though, is that the adventures we share from our creek are striking a chord with folks across the region – and the globe. People from India to Ireland are finding their virtual way to Sligo Creek and telling us how much our storytelling means to them.
They also ask for an update on Mama Goose. Have the two remaining eggs hatched?
The eggs haven’t brought any new goslings into the world, and it’s possible that they may not.
The Phone Rings …
I get a call from a Montgomery County police officer aware of how much time we spend in that area. He informs us that he is investigating reports of shots fired right by our goose’s home and asks if we happen to have seen or heard anything that might be connected. He found shell casings near the nest.
Words fail me. It takes a minute of stammering before I can ask him if anyone or anything got shot.
“You mean …?”
“I didn’t see evidence of dead wildlife, either,” the officer says. He adds that he’s still trying to determine if someone was shooting target practice or if they actually hit something.
My mind races.
The officer tells me that gunshots in that area are exceedingly rare, and that this incident likely occurred in the wee hours of the morning.
These details don’t exactly make the acid forming in my stomach evaporate.
Won-ok and I race to the woods. We barely make it 50 feet from our yard before some neighbors tell us they just found a pile of goose feathers near our goose’s nest. Everybody in the neighborhood knows how much we care about her.
We run toward the nest and spot a pair of beautiful black goose eyes looking at us — and a 1970s NFL helmet chinstrap wrapping around her cheeks.
Maybe the feathers are just more of the ones we spot all the time, feathers that fall off the geese.
Something is off, though. There’s an unusual silence around us – and Mama Goose quickly turns her back on us to stare at the little stream by her nest. She looks left. She looks right. Again and again.
Papa Goose is nowhere to be found.
We try not to panic yet. Sharky might not always be the most attentive would-be father in the woods but we have never seen him disappear for this long.
“We see a lot of pairs where the male is always nearby and very aggressive with anything that comes close,” Schmidt tells us. “Other pairs have different personalities. If the male is a younger goose without a lot of experience, he might spend more time away.”
Won-ok and I sit there for half an hour looking through our camera and binocular lenses in hopes of catching a glimpse of Papa on his way back home.
He doesn’t show.
We review the trail cam footage from the previous 16 hours or so. Nothing. We return to the nest several times over the next two days. Still no sign of Sharky. Mama Goose is visibly depressed.
I ask the expert what the loss of a mate would mean for Mama Goose now and in the future. I know geese are monogamous, so does that mean she’ll spend the rest of her life alone? Will the eggs be at greater risk?
“If the male has been preyed upon, the female will continue nesting and doing her thing,” Schmidt informs us. “And she will find a new mate, eventually. If the female dies, the eggs usually get taken by a predator as the male abandons the nest.”
Rain. Runoff. Danger.
My intestines twist like tightly wound rope as a hard rain begins to fall. Mama Goose built her nest on a perilous perch hanging mere inches above her little stream – one that she does not know is a floodplain. Or that it can fill up in an instant when stormwater runoff races down manicured lawns and impervious surfaces including streets and parking lots. Sligo Creek gets flooded with trash after every hard rain, aluminum and plastic pollution staining everything in sight. The other nesting geese, whether by foresight or luck, have built their nests on higher ground. I suspect their eggs have a better chance of surviving.
As I spend another night tossing and turning in bed, though, I’m not thinking about plastic. Won-ok and I trek to the woods the next day with more pits in our stomachs, terrified of what we’re going to find.
We can’t even reach the nest because the entire area is flooded. A thin ring of twigs and grass floats motionless atop the surface of the creek. The rest of the nest is either buried at sea or washed away. Mama Goose keeps staring down, looking for her eggs. She paces by the spot as solemnly as U.S. Army Sentinels guarding The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, her big, webbed feet not making a sound when they pierce the water.
Won-ok and I stand there in stunned silence; I want to throw up.
“Hey, Sweet Mama,” I force myself to call out, weakly. “I’m so sorry.”
Hints of pain I haven’t felt since my last dog died pulse through my veins. I can’t imagine that the eggs can survive a night underwater during normal weather conditions, let alone in the freakishly cold spring of 2020.
“I don’t know that I can do this anymore,” I mutter to Won-ok. “I don’t know that I can keep coming out here trying to tell Mama’s story. This isn’t what I expected. This is too painful.”
We loiter for a while and then retreat home.
Schmidt gives me straight answers on the phone.
“It’s the end of the nesting season,” she says. “It’s past the point of her being able to re-nest. It’s possible those eggs won’t hatch.”
The night’s blast of stormwater runoff is mostly gone within 24 hours. Won-ok and I return to find Mama Goose hard at work adding multiple new layers to what’s left of her nest. The two remaining eggs are still there, covered in a sprinkling of what looks like mold. She’s not giving up, and we realize we can’t, either.
We keep visiting her every day, hoping against hope that we’re going to see her with a brood of baby geese. Each day we’re disappointed for her. No goose has ever deserved to become a mother more than this one.
Our hopes begin to fade with each passing day. Eggs typically hatch within 26 to 28 days. We have been watching her for five full weeks. Time has to be running out.
New Life In The Woods!
Still, there is good news: The other two Canada geese mothers-in-waiting by the University Boulevard stormwater retention ponds are waiting no more!
Goslings adorable beyond words instantly appear in the woods. One mother has brought four to life; another mother has brought two. They waddle across the paved trail, along the berm above the ponds, and down to the bottom of the gully winding through the area.
“Welcome to the world!” I shout to the little ones.
With a whole lot of luck, the newborns will live 15 to 25 years. Won-ok and I know that their highest risk of death will be their first 10 weeks – until they’re developed enough to fly away from danger – but we’re elated. Summer has brought at least six new lives to Silver Spring!
Able to dive within hours of their birth, the goslings plop into the ponds and go swimming on the first day we spend with them. We go on photo safari during an afternoon shower and capture a wildlife extravaganza with photos and videos. A green heron, wood ducks and some mallards all come out to join the celebration of new life. The harder it rains, the more glorious the day becomes.
And wait – is that … Sharky? A goose with a shark-fin shape on his cheek is suddenly hanging out in the general vicinity of Mama Goose, but we can’t tell for sure if it’s him. He’s too far away.
The Wheaton Retention Ponds off Dennis Avenue is celebrating, too. We spend Memorial Day morning there. I spot a great blue heron hunting by the edge of the pond and start broadcasting on Facebook Live – until I tumble over backward and scare it away.
“Moron!” I mumble to myself.
Won-ok ventures toward the far end of the ponds. She returns with some spectacular shots of a yellow-crowned night heron and a black-crowned night heron.
I spot a pair of proud parents leading a small gaggle of goslings to the water. I pull out my phone and start filming another Facebook Live broadcast. That goes well – until the youngsters mistake me for Papa and start following me.
I keep filming even as I fear this moment is about to go horribly wrong. I end up recording my own stupidity: The real dad is about to knock me out for getting too close. Miraculously, one of our Facebook followers is there at the ponds watching me and our broadcast. She types a message that appears on my phone screen, advising me to back away slowly and calmly.
I escape unharmed and close out the video by reversing the camera angle and focusing on myself. I mention that I picked up two goose feathers that I found. An email is waiting for me by the time I get home. Eye On Sligo Creek supporter and “Trail Lovers” profile subject Dan Treadwell is kind enough to let me know that even picking up found goose feathers is a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The treaty designed to protect birds in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Lesson learned: Leave the feathers on the ground where they sit.
Injustice and Inevitability?
Our euphoria fades over the next few days and is replaced by a feeling of injustice, that our goose won’t get to experience parenthood like the others. Mama Goose and her reunited mate – we can see him clearly now — appear to begin surrendering to the inevitable, too. They venture further from the nest for more extended periods. We make some of our daily visits and don’t see Mama come back for half an hour. In-person and on the trail cam footage, Papa barely makes any appearances — and the two remaining eggs sit unattended for way too long.
A few daily strolls later, there is no Mama Goose in sight.
We look down.
The nest is demolished – strings of grass strewn everywhere. Deep, hooved prints are buried several inches in the mud, in between a lighter animal’s prints.
One egg has completely disappeared. Only the tattered and slime-laced shell of the other remains.
The three eggs that had been sitting in the water for weeks are gone, too.
Won-ok and I are speechless. Sick to our stomachs.
After spending six weeks observing, admiring and cheering for Mama Goose, this is how it ends?
Trail camera footage confirms the obvious. One of the raccoons who has been casing the place the whole time has finally made his move – rolling the eggs out of the nest, twirling them around like a pig on a spit, and presumably scarfing them down. (It’s also possible that hawks or other predators snatched them away.)
The end of the road for the last two eggs.
The camera mercifully does not record the eggs’ last moments, as if the device somehow knows that there are things we really don’t want to see.
I mutter some sort of eulogy to the eggs, then express our sympathies to Sweet Mama. Won-ok and I aren’t sure what to do with ourselves. We’ve spent every day of the spring and early summer walking to the ponds to study and hang out with this bird.
What are we supposed to do now?
We walk home without saying a word – a two-person funeral procession. We don’t even have a chance to say goodbye to Mama Goose. She’s just gone.
We traipse all over the woods for the next week.
Still no Mama Goose.
Our friend at Montgomery County Parks tries to put our experience into perspective for us.
“That’s a shame for that goose,” Schmidt tells us, with empathy for us and the wildlife we’ve been studying. “The predator-prey dynamic happens in the woods all the time. It’s just that most people don’t get to see it.”
I confess to her that I don’t know if I’ll even be able to find the final words of our story; I’m too distraught. What do I say to people who have been hoping for the Hollywood ending?
“I would let them know that while geese do cause some issues, they play a role in our ecosystem,” she says. “Each and every creature, whether they are predator or prey, is a part of this complex system. I would also tell people that Canada geese are beautiful creatures. They are really fun to watch, and people can get a lot of enjoyment out of that. It’s really cool, actually.”
To The Woods Once More
I replay Schmidt’s words in my mind for the next week but rarely venture to the Sligo Creek woods. It’s too painful to pass the big empty spot of land where Mama Goose used to lay. The gaping hole in my heart is just as large.
Finally, I relent.
“Want to go check on the little ones?” I ask Won-ok.
We amble down the trail in the late afternoon and find the first family quickly – the one with two goslings. The youngsters have already doubled in size since we saw them last. Feathers are forming, and they are ever-so-close to taking their first flights. The goslings come waddling up the berm from the ponds, wolfing down grass as excitedly as children stuffing cotton candy into their mouths.
A giggle erupts from my chest, catching the geese and me off guard. I sit down in the dirt, my smile sticking to my face as I film the feast.
I pick up my binoculars and scan the two dozen Canada geese still drifting across the ponds.
I observe only splotchy white patches on their cheeks until –
Is that a thin strap ducking down into a chin guard?
“Sweet Mama!” I scream, the same way I did as a child calling out to a run-away dog who returned home.
“Are you sure?” Won-ok asks.
“Look at those old helmet chinstraps and that scruffy neck — that’s her!”
My heart races as I leap to my feet, rejoicing. I want to dive into the water and hug her, but the county strictly forbids both swimming in the ponds and hugging wildlife.
Instead, I stand still – mesmerized — and admire Mama Goose until the sun goes down.
All is right with the world.
[Eye On Sligo Creek Co-Publisher Christopher Lancette is a Silver Spring-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in Salon, DC Metro Theater Arts and some 45 other national and local publications.]