The Wild Bird Returneth

by Rex Burress

I made my first trip to Gray Lodge Wildlife Area in the latter days of October, anticipating the return of the wild fowl. Autumn had descended on the marsh to color the cottonwoods yellow along the marsh edge while striking the cattails with tones of brown. At such a time you expect waterfowl to be coming back from the north on their migratory routes; in fact, you would be disappointed not to see the water surface dimpled with ducks. "The greatest joy of any pleasure is often the anticipation of it." (Franklin)

They were there - Mallards, pintails, wigeon, Gadwall - going about their seasonal business of dabbling, dining, and dozing. The males had bright fresh plumage like new flowers in springtime and stood out vividly against the somber, spent vegetation. Such a sight stirs something within the bird watcher: a primitive association that gives both a feeling of familiarity and a flick of the time when the ducks provided essential food.

Perhaps that is why the hunter travels hundreds of miles and sets up camp in the refuge parking lot ... and waits for a hunting place ... and spends hundreds of dollars for clothes and equipment. It tickles that primeval memory even though the two or three ducks he is allowed by regulations is but a gesture in satisfying appetites. Like the fisherman, who might say, "Fishin's good; catchin's poor," the hunter, if pressed, might acknowledge that being out in the fields of God interacting with nature and seeing the wonders of the out-of-doors is the main purpose of his hunting. That intangible, aesthetical, statement might not justify his monetary output to those who pass judgment, so there is a reluctance to state objective.

Ducks had arrived by the thousands, fleeing the Northland with its impending storms, and the geese were slowly following. They linger longer along the flyways as if their extra weight slows them down, but already large flocks of Greater White-fronted Geese swarmed from the skies, and mixed in were a couple hundred Snow Geese!

Snow Geese! It is the Snow Geese that people find most thrilling to watch as they flutter from the marsh like a blizzard in a snow storm, filling the skies with their chattering conversation before settling back down to rest. A refuge is a sanctuary where they can be free of the shotgun danger for a little while, and they know it.

It is the Snow Goose that prompts the annual December "Snow Goose Festival" in Chico. There is something joyful in the bird's white coloring trimmed with black and touched with dainty pink bills and feet. They could well represent Christmas time where snow-white scenes decorate some parts of the country, and certainly whitens the northern tundra country from which they have traveled. Snow Geese give you a fresh feeling attuned with the vibrancy of life that all living things cherish.

As if reminding us of the mortal susceptibility of living creatures to the Terminator, hawks and vultures perch in the scattered trees that poke upward out of the edge of the marsh like twiggy sentinels on watch. The scavengers, too, are waiting, resting ... and watching! They are meat eaters and recognize no refuge boundaries in which the waterfowl would hope was complete safety. The Red-tailed Hawks especially hunch up in the trees, usually doing more perching than soaring, waiting to spot an injured bird among the thousands swarming in the wetlands. What the hunter partially missed, the predators will finish.

Then I saw an extra special sight - a Peregrine Falcon sitting on a willow snag less than 50 feet away from the road!! This is the "duck hawk," one of the fastest birds in the air, able to swoop at nearly 200 miles per hour and strike a duck or other bird! I marveled at the huge yellow feet. I had never seen one so close before, and through my 8X42 Eagle Platinum binoculars, the sight was stunning. Those feet smash into its prey in a puff of feathers, killing it instantly in the air. In contrast, the hooded gray head and delicate beak seem too small. The chest was white and spotted with dashes of black, and the blue-gray back seemed to be slung over its shoulders like a cape of a matador. I was privileged. People in their cars making the three-mile visitor's loop are accepted as part of the scene at the refuge, and some extraordinary observations can be made without leaving your steel-walled blind.

In fact, staying in the vehicle was especially comfortable because some fall-chilled mosquitoes were still able to maneuver and they were not reluctant to get a last meal. I wondered if they annoyed the waterfowl. It is hard to find complete paradise on earth for any creature. A form of danger seems to be always lurking to take down the unwary.

      I left the marshes rather reluctantly, refueled by the sight of glorious bird plumage and the wildlands habitat. Like in photography, you take one more look - one more picture - hoping to see something you never saw before. All of that beauty lingers in thought to empower us through the turmoil of life. It is the knowledge of the existence of wildlife refuges, whether it be in Alaska where we may never get to visit, or in a nearby place like Oakland's Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge, or in an intermediate wilderness like Gray Lodge that gives substance and stability to our minds...especially for those "who in the love of nature hold communion with her visible forms." (Bryant)

© 2001 Rex Burress
November 6, 2001