Mama Goose 2021 Takes High-Risk Gamble on Sligo Creek

Won-ok and I head down to the University Boulevard stormwater retention ponds to check in on the spring breeding season for the Canada geese that call this part of Sligo Creek home. Last year’s season ended in disaster for the mother goose we chronicled then. It broke our hearts, too.

That’s how life goes in the wild but it’s hard not to get attached to the wildlife we see every day. Hard not to feel their pain.

We reach the ponds and trek down to the east side. The sun is taking a deep breath as it begins its descent. The hour before the sun calls it a day is always the best chance to experience Nature at her finest. Romance is alive and well throughout the area. Canada goose couples are paired up all over the place. Our hope is that last year’s Mama Goose didn’t repeat her mistake. Didn’t build her nest right on the edge of the lowest part of the creek, the part that gets buried in water first after a hard rain. That spot is underwater today so we can’t tell if she or anyone else has already paid the price for not understanding it’s on the wrong end of the floodplain.

Who is out there this evening? Maybe we’ll get lucky and stumble into a reunion with last year’s Mama Goose. Her picture, revealing her sweet face and hopeful eyes, is the last thing we see every night before we go to bed. She’s in our hearts, always.

No nests appear east of the creek — the Sligo Creek Trail side. We’re relieved.

We scan the far side, Won-ok with her telephoto lens and me with my binoculars. It’s always imperative to give animals their space. They don’t like intrusions or surprises. I spot a family of five clueless humans dropping down from the bank above the ponds. Mother and father start chasing a pair of geese like it’s a sport, then encourage their kids to join in. My blood boils as the terrified geese run and then fly away. I want to confront the parents, but they see me staring at them in disgust and opt to scurry out of sight. My memo to everyone who wants to experience the awe of Sligo Creek is simple: Come on out! Just don’t be an idiot: Use at least a bit of common sense a bunch of the Golden Rule. (And check out Montgomery County’s advice on living with geese.)

My brain and eyes get into a spat a moment later when they can’t reconcile what is right in front of me on the opposite side of the creek. I do a double-take. Maybe my contacts are fuzzy.

They’re not.

I see a goose nesting on … a slightly hollowed-top tree stump that’s maybe 18 inches off the ground. Not sitting, not resting.

Nesting.

She stands up for a second, shakes her booty, and nuzzles two and perhaps three eggs. Over easy, they go, then drop deep enough into the trunk that I can’t see them anymore.

I turn back toward Won-ok 75 feet away and give her the high-pierced sled dog musher’s yip – like bellowing out a capital “U” — that we use to find each other in a crowd or to call the other to the spot one of us is standing, where something good is happening. She begins to charge but slips in the mud. I see her twist her body to take the brunt of the fall with her flesh – protecting the camera gear.

I couldn’t be more proud: Bodies heal; expensive equipment doesn’t.

Won-ok starts firing the shutter on her Canon while we survey the whole scene and discuss our disbelief. Mama Goose 2021 has chosen to take a high-risk gamble with her nest and her clutch.

There are so, so many dangers that come with her decision.

On the one hand, I give her credit for building her nest above ground. Genius, at first glance. This nest just might stay dry after regular rains.

I don’t have enough hands, and maybe not enough fingers, to cover the dangers of Mama 21’s decision. The stump is barely as big as her rump so it can’t be the most comfortable place to hang out for a few months. The stump sits on a mudflat that can get microwave hot later in spring. The mudflat offers little vegetation for Mama 21 to eat or to add to her nest. Expectant mother Canada geese constantly like to step away from their nests for snacks and to improve their abodes. Even when sitting atop their nests, they’re often in a swirl of motion, grabbing building material they’ve piled around them and pulling into their homes. I’ve met no architect who can out-design a goose.

Worse, the stump sits in plain view of everyone and everything in sight – both on the ground and in the air — that might wish to harm the goose or her eggs. I worry as much about humans like the family of five as I do the raccoons and vultures. The nest location also appears to make her mate’s job harder. Papa Goose is on guard duty about 10 feet away. He has to monitor the ground and the air for foes.

Then there’s the elephant in the creek: If these eggs hatch, the first step for each of the goslings will be a doozy! And how is Mama 21 going to get the little ones back up into the nest after they take their first stroll? Is she going to toss them into the air like an old-school pizza maker spinning pie dough? Build a catapult? Is she going to move into a rental property after they’re born?

The call of a red-winged blackbird snatches my attention away. I turn around, though, and see no such bird in any of the usual locations, such as a branch hanging 15 feet above ground or from tall shrubs. I realize the sound is coming from a much higher altitude. I put my bins to my eyes and look up, and up, and up some more.

The bird is sitting near the very top, and a moment later the top, twig of a tree that reaches maybe 125 feet or more. And it is enormous! Won-ok and I express the same thought simultaneously: That sucker is way too big to be a red-winged blackbird. It’s more like a black watermelon in the sky. Maybe there’s some off-shoot, some distant relative, of the bird that achieves sumo wrestler girth. I focus my binoculars perfectly and see the red-wing. I witness the customary tailfeather spread that accompanies each call. I start an ornithology class with the Audubon Naturalist Society next week, so perhaps I can ask a real expert then.

I spin back around in time to watch Mama 21 hop down from her perch after craning her next out and perhaps entertaining a lot of doubt. She looked to me like I must look to others when I’m standing on the side of a pool, full of my life-long fear of water, trying to convince myself to jump. I do it, but not before my knees buckle through multiple false starts. She does take the leap of faith, though, and goes for a short stroll. Mallards drift down into the ponds as she meanders. Several belted kingfishers dart across the water. The red-winged blackbird keeps squawking, paying little attention to the strong wind gusts that would knock mortal blackbirds off their perches. A solidary killdeer on the ground in front of us begins chatting it up with no one in particular.

Mama Goose 21 gathers a pitifully small number of twigs and other dried-up shrubs and places them in a circle around her.

I wonder if she’s building a second home or gathering materials to add to the first. If the latter, how is she going to lift them and place them in the nest?

She promptly proves I still haven’t asked the right question. She flitters back atop the stump, completing neither of the tasks I identified. Papa Goose, at least, is satisfied. He clocks out for a few minutes and goes for a swim in the smaller pond.

Mama 21 adjusts the scan few feathers in her nest and settles in for the night. Papa returns and moves his defense line closer, to within six feet. The sun sinks below the rooftops of the houses behind them. We exit the ponds, zigzagging our way between other courting couples to avoid causing them stress. King Kong Blackbird, still with us all this time, heads out, too.

The ponds grow quiet, but one thought is cling-clanging pans in my skull: Will Mama Goose 21’s high-risk gamble pay off?

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