Tundra Bean-Goose: far away from home, far away from my camera

The wacky Arctic winter in Southern California continues

You may recall that my 2023 started off with an improbable Snowy Owl in a residential neighborhood of Orange County. This was followed by a long-staying Yellow-billed Loon in San Diego County. It was as if Santa had brought along some Arctic birds in his sleigh and deposited them in Southern California. Not to be outdone, Los Angeles County gots its Arctic wanderer recently when a Tundra Bean-Goose was spotted in the Antelope Valley. The sharp eyes that saw it first were those of Jonathan Feenstra, who has seen an astounding 489 species in L.A. County. He saw it flush from at a place called Piute Ponds – a high desert freshwater wetland fed by treated wastewater from the nearby city of Lancaster. Piute Ponds are located on Edwards Air Force Base, and you’ve got to have permission to visit the site. Like many others, I don’t have permission. Because permission to visit is granted by the military, it’s a slow process to get it. Combine that with the likelihood that the bird would move on quickly, it didn’t seem like I’d have the chance to see the bird.

Scattered purple dots of Tundra Bean-Goose sightings

But this goose wanted to be seen. It moved from Piute Ponds to the nearby Lancaster Water Treatment Plant (WTP), where it hung around with other geese. The WTP is closed to birders, as well, so you had to hope it was visible from the perimeter fence. (The kind staff at the WTP opened the place for birders during the week, making for some happy, if stinky, birders). As often as not over the next 10 days, it was visible. I finally took the drive up to Lancaster 2 weeks after the Bean-goose was first spotted. Since it was a weekend, I couldn’t go inside. To my delight, the bird was still there, wobbling around a big field visible through the chain-link fence surrounding the water treatment plant. It was with two Canada Geese and a Greater White-fronted Goose. It was far away, but it was there. Astounding to wonder how this bird got here. Presumably, it stopped here on its way north, maybe from Mexico. What was it doing in Mexico?

As the eBird map above shows, Tundra Bean-Goose is not a common sight anywhere in the lower 48. There’s been just over a dozen birds spotted, spread from the West Coast to New York. So it was delight to get to see one.

Further Antelope Valley Adventures

Since I had made the drive, I decided to wander the Antelope Valley for a few hours. The Antelope Valley is a marvelous place (except in summer, when it’s outrageously hot and feels empty and bleak) (and often in winter, when it’s frigid and windy). In March, I assure you, it can be stunning. California poppies were beginning to show in the western end of the valley. On account of all of our rain this winter, it’s sure to be a super-bloom this year. The hills of the Tejon Ranch were green with happy vegetation. It was beautiful.

There had been reports of a flock of 15 Chestnut-collared Longspurs on private land in the western Antelope Valley, which would be a lifer. I drove to the general area, cruised some fields and walked around hoping to flush them, but I struck out. Some Horned Larks, a curious Prairie Falcon, and a late Ferruginous Hawk were pleasant consolation prizes.

From there, I headed to Gorman Post Road, a spot along I-5 near the Grapevine where California Condors and Golden Eagles can show up. Indeed, both had been spotted a couple days previous. The weather, however, wasn’t being that cooperative. Low clouds and light rain were steadily moving through. During a brief break in the clouds, some ravens and a Red-tailed Hawk were joined briefly aloft by a Golden Eagle. Ten years in L.A., and this was the first time I’d ever seen a Golden Eagle in the county. But there were no condors soaring. Still, it was a productive and restorative day in the Antelope Valley.

Blue sky briefly peaks out above the pond at Gorman Post Road

Update – July 2023

The Tundra Bean-Goose that has brought so many birders to Los Angeles County, and its aura of mystery, lives on. For background, the bird was first spotted in March at Piute Ponds, a high desert stopover point for many migrating birds. It then hung around the nearby Lancaster Wastewater Reclamation Plant until early May. In Mid-May, it was found five miles away at Apollo Park, one of those human landscape gathering spots for domestic geese and all manner of unnatural waterfowl offspring. It remained at Apollo Park, growing increasingly comfortable around humans, even approaching them hoping for handouts. Some said it walked with a limp. All reported its drooping and apparently injured right wing. It was last seen at Apollo Park on July 8th. 

Many assumed the bird had died, perhaps succumbing to its injury or not tolerating the increasing heat of the desert landscape it had made its home. Kimball Garrett sent a message to the LA Birders listserv on July 12th that noted the bird’s absence, and doubted that the bird would choose to leave such a cheeto-rich environment for browner and barer pastures. He concluded with “RIP bean-goose…although one can always hold out hope.”

The next day, ubiquitous LA birder Chris Dean re-found the Tundra Bean-Goose 60 miles due south of Apollo Park, in South Los Angeles. It was hanging around some Canada Geese and other creatively-jowled fowl at Earvin Magic Johnson Park in Willowbrook. After initial questions about whether this might’ve been a second Tundra Bean-Goose, Occam’s Razor won out.  Apparently the orange markings on the bill were matched with photos of the bird from Apollo Park.

Magic Johnson Park has two big lakes, large expanses of short grass, and lots of humans. The Bean-Goose appeared to have lost its primary flight feathers on each wing. This prompted some speculation that the bird could not or would not have flown in such a condition, and might have been transported by a well-wisher (or deranged birder) out of the desert and into the megacity. But a message from Peter Pyle, an expert on waterfowl molt, indicated a post-migration molt is not unusual, and that primaries can be dropped in a day.

So the working theory now is that the bird flew to Magic Johnson Park on its own. Perhaps when its primaries grow back in, it will fly away for good. Or maybe some deranged birder will lay a popcorn path to lure the bird to Orange County. If it’s like most others who find themselves in Los Angeles and well-fed, I suspect it won’t leave until it can’t afford rent.