When I woke up on 21 Feb, 2023, the first message that drew my attention was about the sighting of a Lesser White-fronted Goose at Hadinaru Lake near Mysore, on 12th Feb. Though I cursed the birder for the late information, my mind immediately started to plan to go to Hadinaru, to not miss the opportunity to see a rare bird so close to my city. So I messaged my birding buddies. My friend Albin and I left the same afternoon for Mysore, and reached Hadinaru Lake by 4:30 pm. As we approached the lake from the front side, we saw an awesome sight of about five hundred Bar-headed Geese spread all over the lake, floating lazily.
Now the task was to find the lone Lesser White-fronted Goose amongst the huge flock of Bar-headed Geese. We scanned the entire flock using binoculars, but couldn’t see it. We then decided to go to the rear of the lake, where some of the geese were roosting under trees. There, we saw a lone goose with a white forehead, and happily photographed what seemed to be the Lesser White-fronted Goose.
After many photos and videos, we started our journey back home, discussing how the bird was in the middle of so many Bar-headed Geese like a V.I.P surrounded by security. I started checking my images and noticed that the white on the goose’s forehead was not prominent in some shots. I then compared it to the image taken on 12th Feb by the other birder – that image showed a prominent white forehead, whereas our goose only had a small white patch and no eye-ring.
Alas, did we photograph the wrong bird? We pulled over to the side of the highway and checked Albin’s images; he has a better lens. His images too were no different. We sent the pictures to experts and found out that the bird we had seen was a Greater White-fronted Goose and not the one we had been looking for; but we consoled ourselves as this bird too was a lifer for us. We came to the conclusion that both the Lesser and Greater White-fronted Geese would have come along with the Bar-headed Geese. But we keenly wanted to see the Lesser White-fronted Goose since it is a rare vagrant to India, and the sighting was the first record from South India.
The next afternoon, on 22 Feb, we again drove from Bangalore and reached Hadinaru Lake in the evening. We could not see the Lesser White-fronted, and once again, saw only the Greater White-fronted Goose. We noticed that by 5:30 to 5:45 pm, all the geese started leaving the lake in batches, to faraway places for feeding. So we decided to stay at a hotel for the night, and have a bird-watching session the next morning. The next morning (23 Feb), the geese started arriving 9:30 am onwards, and the lake was full with geese by 10 am. We scanned the whole flock in the water and even at the back of the lake, but we could not see our target bird. So we headed back to Bangalore, cursing our luck.
On 24 Feb morning, another birder saw the Lesser White-fronted Goose at Hadinaru Lake at around 10 am, in close proximity from the bund. You can imagine our mood when we heard the news! We left early in the afternoon hoping that the chance of seeing the bird was high, since they roost until evening. We reached the lake by 4 pm and scanned the area, and shouted in unison “It is there!”
Our joy knew no bounds as we were seeing the bird on our fourth attempt. By this time, we were familiar with its anatomy, the differences between Lesser and Greater White-fronted Goose etc. The Lesser White-fronted Goose has a rosy, bubble-gum coloured bill, a yellow eye ring, chocolate brown dark body, and a prominent white patch on the forehead; we were able to see all these features clearly in the evening sun.
The Lesser White-fronted Goose (Anser erythropus) is a highly migratory small goose species. It breeds in tundra forests from Scandinavia to easternmost Russia, and winters discontinuously in wetland areas from South-eastern Europe to Eastern China. Today, three sub-populations can be distinguished: Fennoscandian, Western main and Eastern main. In addition, a small population has been supplemented/re-introduced in Sweden.
Lesser White-fronted Goose numbers have declined rapidly since the 1950s, with an estimated decrease of up to 50% of the global population in the last decade, sparking fears that the species may soon go extinct. Illegal and accidental hunting are the main threats to the species. It is very similar to the Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons), which is a common game bird. When migrating together, the two species are very difficult to distinguish. In addition to raising awareness amongst hunters and enforcing seasonal bans on goose hunting at key sites, innovative approaches to the hunting issue are urgently needed.
An International Single Species Action Plan covering the Fennoscandian and Western main sub-populations was adopted under the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) in 2008, with the overall aim to restore the species to a favourable conservation status. An AEWA International Working Group coordinates the conservation measures for these two populations by agreeing on prioritized activities, fundraising, ensuring regular monitoring, stimulating scientific research and promoting the protection of a network of critical sites.
In India, there are only a few records from Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and the North-east. Since the population of the Lesser White-fronted Goose is dwindling rapidly, IUCN has classified it as “Vulnerable” in the threatened category. The sighting of this goose in Feb 2023 is the first record of this bird in South India.
While watching this rare Lesser White-fronted Goose, another interesting bird – a tagged Bar-headed Goose with a green neckband (F88) – caught our attention. Via the internet, we learnt that this particular goose was caught and tagged in Mongolia by Wildlife Conservation and Science Centre (Mongolia) on 13 July, 2019. Interestingly, the same bird was seen in 2020, 2021, 2022 and now in 2023, in the same lake; by this, we can conclude that the same flock migrates every year to Hadinaru Lake.
With two lifers (Lesser and Greater White-fronted Geese) and a tagged Bar-headed Goose, we were very happy that our efforts to see the rare bird had borne fruit.
I conclude with a beautiful drawing by my birding buddy Albin’s child, five-year-old Arya, who accompanied us to Hadinaru Lake and patiently drew this sketch on the spot.