Trail Mix | Ron Judd
Look up and be transported by 10,000 snow geese
It never gets old. The first time you stand in the jet wash of 10,000 snow geese simultaneously bursting into flight, the hair will stand...
Seattle Times staff columnist
FIR ISLAND, Skagit County — It never gets old.
The first time you stand in the jet wash of 10,000 snow geese simultaneously bursting into flight, the hair will stand up on the back of your neck, a shiver will go down your spine and your eyes will water.
Guaranteed, end of discussion. The second time you do it, it's pretty much the same vibe. And the third. And so on.
The snow-goose takeoff rush might, in fact, be as spectacular as anything you'll ever see in nature.
It has something to do with 20,000 wings bashing the air like so many paint brushes on so many snare drums, and the deafening chorus of high-pitched squawks forming a symphonic wave that breaks on top of you, then washes over and swirls around in all directions.
All of this is purely strength in numbers. We are talking, after all, about a simple goose here — about 5 pounds of feathers and meat, maybe 2 feet tall, with a 58-inch wingspan. Nothing to write home about, certainly nothing to paste on a wildlife calendar.
But put several acres of the little guys together and send them off into flight, and you've got an F-4 natural tornado on your hands, with little ol' you standing in the eye.
The birds rise above your head like a single organism, swirling in a great arc into the sky. In the midst of it, you stand and try to figure out which way to look, and whether to duck from the light rain of grassy, green poop bombs landing all around you or just stand there and take your lumps.
When the flock moves away and the sound and fury begin to wane, you stand for a second, stunned, recuperating, sort of embarrassed at the way this all struck you. Never fear: Most people then quickly shift back into superior-species mode, doing something concertedly homo sapiens — checking your watch, or flipping open your stupid cellphone, maybe — to show you're still master of this universe.
Not to mention a practiced liar.
If the sight and sound of the Skagit lesser snow-goose flock taking flight doesn't get your juices flowing, you're soulless, vacant, vacuous, dried up, done.
There is, of course, only one way to find out.
The Skagit flock, some 55,000 strong in recent years, is not that hard to find. The birds hang out in a five-mile stretch of land near the Skagit River delta, sometimes directly at the state wildlife area just west of Conway (Exit 221 from Interstate 5).
The lesser snow geese, which migrate in the fall from breeding grounds on Wrangel Island in Siberia, feed on cover crops — winter wheat and rye — planted specifically for their benefit. It's something the state began doing when goose populations plummeted in the early '90s because of bad northern breeding conditions.
In other parts of the world, a population dip might actually be welcome. Numbering an estimated 7 million or more, the snow goose is one of the world's most numerous waterfowl. Other groups that breed around Hudson's Bay and migrate south into the central United States have grown so numerous — thanks largely to unplanned assists from American farmers — that their northern breeding grounds are in danger of being overrun.
Not so with our own local band, a distinct subgroup that has recovered strongly to what's considered a healthy, thriving population.
The Skagit-Fraser snow geese are abundant enough, in fact, that a limited hunting season is now allowed here. Spectators will see a few hunters around, hear the occasional pop-pop-pops and see a few of the birds drop to the ground like sacks of spuds. Somehow, though, people with long lenses, spotting scopes and shotguns seem to coexist pretty well, sharing shoulder space on roads around the Skagit Valley.
Go armed with a little time, patience and — this is critical — respect for local property owners, and you're likely to find the flock eventually. It's here until spring.
If you're lucky, you'll find the sea of white squawkers near a road, where you can stand, watch, wait and hope for the big bang. There's no telling when an entire flock of snow geese will take flight, and in my experience, no consistent reason why.
That's part of the magic. It just happens when it happens.
Some single spark of an idea will enter the compact little brain of a single snow goose, starting a chain reaction that begins with leaping, flapping, squawking and acres of aerial cacophony and ends with a simple, heartfelt stirring in the very depth of your soul.
That's the mystery, and undeniable allure, of man's connection to all things wild. It's a part of him, and given the chance, he'll seek it out.
Even if he does get pooped upon in the process.
Ron Judd's Trail Mix column appears here every Thursday. To contact him: 206-464-8280 or email@example.com.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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