Migration Celebration

Freezeout 217

                A  neighbor of mine works for the Audubon society and when I saw an announcement in the local paper about spring migrations recently, I remembered a scene from the year before as they emerged from their car smiling fresh from a local birding spot.  The article reported the beginning of the annual snow geese migration, which involves three million birds moving through an isolated point east of the Rocky Mountains.  Freezeout Lake as it is known, is just south of the town of Browning, Montana, and provides a unique drive dotted with dinosaur statues and majestic views. I thought about how animated my neighbors had been when I asked about their day, and I was determined to make the narrow window to see this wonder of nature.

Freezeout Lake is actually a series of shallow lakes that sit on a stretch of grassland just where the Great Plains come off the Rockies to begin a rolling plunge eastward.  They are a four hour journey from my home, so setting the alarm to 5:00 A.M. was a necessity to ensure the trip wouldn’t be wasted by a late arrival that would miss the great flock bursting skyward.  Apparently snow geese fly off to feed in the surrounding barley fields sometime between 7:00 and 10:00 A.M. and if you don’t get your rear in the car by 6:00 A.M. to make the mountain pass,  you risk waiting for the birds return sometime after 4:00 P.M.

My wife and I sleepily made the 5:00 A.M. bell, but not because of the alarm, but due to our dog going ballistic at some guy poking around the trashcans in the alley. We yawned, silently rolled up our gear and dressed for colder weather in the darkness before leaving hurriedly just before 6:00 A.M.  The series of small towns from Kalispell to Columbia Falls changed into high canyon walls and murky, dark mountains as we clock watched against the rising sun. Mountain tops soon became glorious opera sets with golden halos as we both desperately aimed shakey cell phones toward them through misty, beaded windows. I couldn’t believe my eyes as we passed a band of some 20 white, fluffy Rocky Mountain Goats eating off the rocks of a foggy side canyon. Timeline or not, I had to spin on a dime and take a few moments to breath in and witness this unexpected wonder. I am one to get distracted by the unusual as a passenger, especially since focusing my abilities on becoming a writer. Inevitably this had us running late, and we dropped the accelerator weaving from bright sun to darkened valley while zooming around locals heading for breakfast diners.

A sudden turn down a rocky gravel road led us to two of the larger lakes surrounded by a sprinkling of motor homes, campsites, and pick-ups. We reached the shoreline in raised anticipation with squinting eyes as we searched ever meter of the lake for the telltale spots of white. Nothing… I was heartbroken; we had missed the morning flight. The few remaining floating dots were Trumpeter Swans, not geese, and although majestic, I knew the splendor of thousands of flapping wings heading skyward was not to be.

I resigned myself to look for a few species of shorebirds that would be eating their breakfast on the perimeter of the lake and we returned to the car.  We followed the remaining gravel road near the water and soon found ourselves at the last lake in the chain. Deb saw a small cluster of white dots off the far shore, and I grew hopeful as I noticed a string of other cars parked off to the side. There were several bundled couples hoisting binoculars at the shoreline, so we joined the dusty line of cars. We hopped out and released our dog Barley to join us as we crossed the heavy grasses to the lip of the lake where a cold, heavy wind was whipping small breakers. We focused on the group of some twenty birds and confirmed they were Snow Geese! They were simple shimmering shapes in the distance, but we soon discovered the thick surrounding grasses made a great seat, so we sat and waited to see if anything would happen.

We chatted for ten minutes or so when Deb sat up and said, “What’s that?” A few specs on the horizon were heading our way. We did not know if they were snow geese, so we continued chatting as they approached and became larger. Soon the faint call of geese reached our ears and made us smile. A beautiful series of interlocking V’s came toward us passing over our right shoulders before breaking into a slow arc as they maneuvered in for a landing. It was during this trip that I first noticed each formation not only followed the leader of the V into the landing, but would also follow their chosen landing style. Some groups would come in and flap madly before dropping with a plop, others choosing a side-to-side gliding style that dropped in increments until they reached the water. Still other groups chose to drop sooner, preferring to come at the mass of birds from a lower altitude before gliding into an easy slide.

The first group of birds had been made up of four or five V formations of 20 birds each, but that was an early scouting group that soon turned into wave after wave of interlocking V’s within the hour. The largest group contained some 800 animals and was a sight not often seen in the 21st century. I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to experience it fully lost behind the lens of a camera, so I laid spread eagle on the grass with my head toward the lake.  First I’d hear the calls from the flock, then a rising flutter of wings as white bellies with black tipped wings flowed over me like the warmth of the first moments in a hot bath. Stressful thoughts, worries from work, past mistakes all faded with the morning fog as my consciousness merged with the wind, and for a few moments, I floated with their wings and sailed the blue sky.

As is my way, I fell into philosophy and wondered at how some things in life do not gain our attention until we are fully immersed in them. In an age of prepackaged tours, it was nice to know that some places remain untouched and special beyond the brochure. As reality grows harder and harder to find in an Age of Disneyland and text messages, nature still remains timeless and real.

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