January 27, 2012
As amateur birdwatchers, we always like to sees the big birds, and the big migrations. It is, after all, much easier to identify a bird that stands 3 to 4 feet tall than a tiny warbler 40 feet up in a tree. It is also more thrilling to watch thousands of birds do their thing, than to see one smaller bird forage in a stream for water beetles. (Although that is fun as well.) Years ago, on our journeys around the country, we ALMOST saw two wonderfully large bird events: Migrating Snow Geese and the dawn flight of almost a million Sandhill Cranes.
The Snow Geese
Back in February of 2002 we “Kerouaced”1 across the United States to get to California for a "surprise" wedding party that friends were throwing for our son Mike and his new wife, Kate. (They had married at Lake Tahoe a few months earlier.) Tooling thru Nebraska we had to keep going when we passed flocks of tens of thousands of Snow Geese staging in a Nebraska field for their continuing journey north. No time to stop, we pulled over for a moment, rolled down our windows, took a quick picture and listened to the overwhelming calls and cries of the geese as they gave each other instructions and directions for the next stage of their northward journey. We vowed to return to see them again, but of course they were long gone when we passed in the opposite direction a month later.
Occasionally over the years we would hear reports of a few snow geese being seen somewhere in the New York City area... but never enough birds to actually go view them. And of course if we couldn’t get there by subway...we wouldn’t go anyway.
The Sandhill Cranes
Early in March of 2008 we traveled through the Platte River area of Nebraska again. This time we decided to set up before dawn in a bird blind and photograph the cranes. From there we were told we could watch when the hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes that were staging in the area would lift off the water at dawn to forage and court in the near-by fields. To see this we had to be in a frozen blind on the water at four AM. Our cameras at the ready, we stoutly endured over two hours of standing quietly inside the tiny wooden shelter to wait for sunrise. In spite of wearing layers and layers of thermal underwear... my Eddie Bauer parka (good down to 20 degrees below zero)... boots and electric socks... hand warmers... ski mask... ear muffs... fur hat... we were beyond cold. Standing there on the wood floor over the water, the hours crawled by. Unable to move from the cold, icicles forming on our noses, we silently waited and waited... all the while we could hear them quietly clicking and talking amongst themselves.
Dawn came, and this is what we saw. Not one bird! Certainly not thousands rising majestically into the early morning light.
Perhaps, it being too cold to fly, they just snuck away on foot before dawn.
Years Later: Two Happy Endings
The past few weeks we were hanging out in Galveston State Park on the Gulf Coast of Texas. The surrounding fields and yards were full of small groups of Sandhill Cranes. Nothing like the thousands we saw in the crop fields of Nebraska, but groups of ten or twenty were pretty much everywhere, practicing their courting dances and making wonderful clacking sounds. I wouldn’t say they were underfoot like pigeons on the sidewalks of New York, but they could be watched from 20 yards away instead of 200. They also didn’t fly when I walked up to a fence to watch them, instead they turned and walked away giving lots of vent views.
Yesterday we decided to visit the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge on our way to Austin. We turned off the Interstate and about a half a mile down the road we were thrilled to discover the skies and fields full of tens of thousands of Snow Geese. Finally, this is what we had so wanted to see again up close and personal for the past ten years. There they were as high and as far as the eye could see and even more thrilling to hear and see than I remembered! Enjoy the video
...of course we never did see an Attwater Prairie Chicken. They are almost extinct and the surviving few chickens hide in thousands of acres of tall grass.
In spirit I am always traveling with you.
Lance peanut butter crackers are the current version of NABS.
WOW - so glad you got these opportunities and thanks for the videos! Loved the snow geese (never saw such a sight).
Keep on sharing and thank you both.