SnowGeeseInSnowWe live on a major bird migratory route. Above is a photo I captured a few years ago, of Snow Geese in the snow. I am not a bird expert, so I have no grasp of how many different species move through here over the winter, but I know it’s a lot. Flocks of little birds are not always as noticeable. Though, I do often see intermittent spikes in my chicken feed consumption, that I attribute to these stoppers-by, seen fluttering about the feeder en masse for a day or two, then gone. The big birds are another matter, they are a constant and dramatic presence. Ducks by the thousands (millions?), for sure. Bigger yet, Canada Geese, Snow Geese, and some other goose species I’m not as sure about. And the big daddy of them all, the Trumpeter Swan.

Trumpeters2The ducks of course, quack and cackle; and their wings make a unique whistling sound in flight. Sometimes at night in the pitch dark, they’ll be relatively settled-in to a water feature in the pasture next door, and something will startle them and cause the whole mass of them to lift-up very suddenly. The sound is kind of like a powerful waterfall instantly turned on, all those wings pushing fat bodies up and out of the water with great urgency. It will startle me every time, even though I know what it is.

Canada Geese have a very familiar and well-known, honk-ey voice, and the Snow Geese are maybe an octave higher, they make more of a toot than a honk. Goose wings whoosh rather than whistle like ducks’ flight. There is another goose that flies through here in masses that has a very squeaky voice. I think it’s the Brant (Brent) Goose; but I don’t see them land much, so I haven’t figured it out for sure. The trumpeters do really sound like like trumpets. But not like trumpets in a symphony orchestra; it’s more like the sound of middle school band students first learning to play wind instruments. Winking smile

I keep meaning to try to capture them digitally to give an idea of the sight and sound of them, as it’s so extraordinary. Though they stream through here for several months in vast numbers, the moments of big drama are often fleeting and it’s hard to do them justice “on film.” It’s also challenging to sneak up close enough to photograph them with an ordinary camera: if one on the edge of the group sees or hears you, he’ll bust, and then the whole flock is up and out in a flash.

These last few weeks, it’s been Snow Geese. Here is a snapshot of a mob of them sitting in the field across the street. At this moment, they were being fairly quiet. When they’re just hanging out, they make some noise, day and night, but it’s at more of a conversational chit-chat level.

When they are on the move, however, discussing a takeoff or landing strategy, oh boy, they are loud. Below is a short snippet I recorded one morning. Same crowd in the same place, you just can’t see them because of the fog. You can faintly hear a vehicle passing on the road, but the birds, by far, dwarf the decibels made by an automobile.

Snow geese racket

Another prominent species that is attracted to this area during migration time is a human one: the birder. I used to think that birding was a casual gentleman’s hobby: maybe spend a pleasant-weather afternoon in the woods in meditative contemplation, appreciating the sights and sounds of different bird species. Watching the tongue-in-cheek movie The Big Year (which is really a make-you-smile kind of film, BTW) was my first clue that for some people, this is way more than a hobby. It’s an obsession. And now, living here, I can see it firsthand.

These guys don’t just drop in for a few minutes when there is a flock to photograph. They camp out here all day, dawn to dusk, for weeks, waiting for the perfect shot (camera shot, that is). Sometimes cars line the road on both shoulders, and wedge into driveway corners; causing other drivers to slow and gander, wondering what’s going on. These property-edge lingerers make the guardian dogs bark, of course, though fortunately it’s more of a lazy bark than an attention-getting, urgency bark.

There are hunters, too, but they tend to limit their hobby to a couple of hours in the morning or evening. And they are, of course, invisible, hidden in blinds in the fields. The only evidence of their presence is the occasional crack of a shotgun. Their dedication is nothing compared to the birders, however.

These last few weeks, the big magnet has been a Gyrfalcon that’s been sitting in the trees near our house and hunting in the fields below. I’m sorry I don’t have a picture of this celebrity bird, but a $5,000 camera lens painted in cammo is a prerequisite for getting a good shot. Winking smile My attempts with my modest Canon point-and-shoot have merely resulted in illustrating a vague, dark shadow high in the tree limbs, that might as well be a crow.

Apparently it’s not common for these arctic birds to come this far south during migration, so it’s a big deal to be able to photograph one here. They tell me the next closest two Gyrs are across the Canadian border.

So, “our” Gyr’s personal fan club has been lurking around here, stalking him at all hours to assess his habits. They know what he’s eating, which way he flies to catch ducks, when he catches and when he misses his prey, and on which branch he prefers to sleep. They check on him pre-dawn and sit and watch him all day, waiting with infinite patience for him to go, and return, from snacking. Some days, he’s not here, but there they sit, hoping he’ll come back. It made Kirk comment one day, I feel for celebrities having to deal with paparazzi snapping pictures of them every time they step out their front doors.

One day, a nice fella asked me, do you mind if I park here and take some photographs of this bird? Oh, sure, I said, envisioning the guy would stay for a couple of hours before the bird, and he, would be gone. Three weeks later, that guy and his friend, and both their cars, are found almost daily at the end of our driveway. Sometimes they are so fixated on the view through their gigantic camera lenses or binoculars, they fail to notice we are trying to drive a vehicle through and need them to move out of the middle of the drive.

Honking at them risks startling them, or the bird. I’ve gotten the gist that the protocol is quiet-as-a-librarian. And, that prolonged neighborly chit-chat is not necessarily encouraged, because that distracts from keen readiness for snapping the shutter the moment the bird does something besides just sit there. One day as I bid these campers-out good afternoon while getting the mail, one of them kindly said, be sure to let us know if you get tired of having us here! I opened my mouth to say something, then shut it.

We do live in a valley of incredible beauty and views after all, and it’s nice to be able to share its splendor with others. I commend their deep knowledge of wildlife, their serious commitment to this passion that’s a mixture of outdoorsmanship, art, biology, conservation and education. Seeing an incredible bird photo on the web or in a magazine, you’ve got to appreciate the investment that went into getting that one-in-a-million shot. But, it’ll be nice when migration is over, and the swarms of noisy birds, and persistent birders, move on for the season, and all is peaceful again in our valley. Winking smile