Magic Flight

by Rex Burress

I wanted to see the concentrated migrant flocks at Gray Lodge before the February warmth sent them sailing northward. To those who obtain joy from the presence of thousands of widgeon, shovelers, Mallards, Snow Geese, and the migratorial cast, there is always an emptiness when they disperse in the springtime and leave you alone. You feel like sprouting wings and joining the great procession but, alas, we are locked to our earthly niche.

I felt it every year of the thirty-two I worked at Oakland's Lake Merritt waterfowl refuge. Slowly the diving duck numbers would grow smaller, and then one day only the resident birds would be left for the summer until another autumn when hopefully the cycle would be repeated. There is no control over those free flying birds with a mind of their own; they are children of the wild to blend and bend with the seasons, completely on their own.

As I approached Sutter Buttes, I could see a flock of Snow Geese in the air, drifting like fluttering snowflakes toward the marsh. Maybe my one last view before their departure. The weather had been warm and, even though a brisk wind had picked up from the west, enough sunlight warmth remained for comfort, and several thousand Snow Geese were lulling in the central shallows.

I lingered over lunch, then made a slow drive through the visitor loop, took a few pictures, but there wasn't much action. Buds were popping on the willow, and the winter tree skeletons were stirring from slumber, as if yawning and preparing for work once again. The Northern Harrier glided low over the water and then landed in a shrub, as if it too wanted to warm in the sun.

I finished the loop but then, when I looked back, I was surprised to see a dark cloud forming to the west, and rain fingers were drifting earthward. Wow! Maybe some dramatic storm photography!

I zipped back to the midway point where I had eaten lunch, and the advancing clouds were over the western part of the marsh, headed for the Sutter Buttes like an advancing army. Suddenly the wind stopped and an eerie calm hovered over the marsh, with great clouds creating dramatic reflections in the water. The Snow Goose flock was mostly unconcerned, although some of them lifted upward, their white feathers bright against the dark blue cloud.

I was in the midst of some kind of weather front, with a cold wind invading the previous warm days. I almost expected a tornado, like one I had seen in the area some years ago. A sprinkling of rain pitted the water.

When that cloud was directly overhead, a most wondrous thing happened. A flock of about 100 Snow Geese descended from the cloud, drifting downward like angels returning from celestial realms. Not one bird was flapping its wings, but all were simply gliding gently downward toward the other flocks.

I focused my ten-power binoculars on the geese, and the white beauty contrasting against the ominous dark cloud was indescribable. The pink of the beak, the yellowish tinge around the face, the pink legs - all stood out in bold relief for a few fleeting seconds of a brief encounter that a bird watcher can hope to see only a few times in a lifetime.

Suddenly I was struck by a tense feeling that they were up high, and for a moment I had that giddy feeling I once had when some skyscraper workers took me up 26 stories to look down through the metal framework! You feel as if your life is in danger, and you grab for something to hold on to. For a moment I was a Snow Goose looking down on a marsh with nothing to hold on to, having only a few flimsy feathers to avert a disastrous descension.

There was a faint rumble of thunder from that cloud, and the projection of being a Snow Goose was even more terrifying. Think about it! There is the marsh, and you must maneuver your wings and manage the air currents to allow your body to land unharmed in a stormy sky! If there is joy in flight and a special privilege in being able to look down on glorious landscapes, there is a certain perilousness in being so high with an absolute dependence on open wings.

Imagine the fear, if a goose knows fear, of setting down out of a cloud and being a target for a hunter! Or the anxiety of migrating 2,000 miles over hazardous wilderness to reach the prime directive. Those beautiful birds seem so precious in their handsome plumage and flying ability, even though wildlife managers are denouncing them as being too numerous and damaging the Arctic tundra. Are the Snow Geese aware of their lovely forms and unique position, or are they merely an organic creation living to occupy a niche on earth?

I breathed a sigh of relief as the flock softly landed amid the tules and Snow Goose tribe. There was not a sign of emotional relief in having made the leap from heaven to earth, but merely that everlasting alertness a living, healthy bird possesses. Gliding from a dangerous-looking sky out of turbulent winds and potential storm was all in a day's work for a Snow Goose. But a human observer on a February day had witnessed a miracle of life available only for those who watch.

© 2001 Rex Burress
February 7, 2001