Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The First Fly-Over of the Year

Damon recently mentioned that he started a new job at an environmental centre where he will be able to casually watch for birds. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I do this all the time in my own backyard. 

Paul's backyard. (And no, that's not an UFO in the sky)
As you can see, I have a pond and marsh to watch while I am sitting on my deck enjoying a cold beer. I haven't been able to do this yet this year because of the 2 feet of snow and 1 foot ice covering the pond, and needless to say, the birds visiting the pond during winter have been a bit sparse. However, once it warms up, we should have a nice collection of birds frequenting our backyard including plovers, kingfishers, ducks, geese, herons, and red-winged black birds. 

While I am waiting for the thaw and anticipating the return of the birds, I still occasionally take a look out over the pond. I did this a few mornings back and couldn't believe what I saw. Two Canadian Canada geese doing a low fly-over the pond. This was the first sighting of waterfowl in my backyard for the year and perhaps even a first harbinger of spring. I realize these were probably local birds scoping out open water or feeding areas, but this did elicit a tinge of immediate excitement when it reminded me of something from days gone by.

Geese over the Frost House. By J.A. Frost, Paul's eldest sons
Growing up in Oregon (no, not there; Eastern Oregon; think "Idaho"), we lived on the eastern edge of the Pacific flyway. Every fall and spring, we would be visited by considerable numbers of migrating Canada geese and mallards. There were some other, lesser number, waterfowl too which I mostly remember as green-winged teal and sometimes pintails. While the arrival of the waterfowl in the fall was something I looked forward to, the precise timing of these migrants wasn't anything that I remember distinctly.

It was different in late winter, when the first appearance of the geese and ducks flying north was something that you noticed. After two or three months of winter, the return of the geese was the first sign that warmer weather was on the way. It was these returning birds that piqued my wonder and curiosity each year, largely due to the geography of the Great Basin. The Treasure Valley, where my hometown is located, is north and west of the Great Basin (perhaps you might say we were actually in it) and south and west of more mountainous and forested regions. Once you leave the Treasure Valley and head south there are hundreds of miles of uninterrupted sagebrush plains. Keep going and you end up in the desert southwest and miles upon miles of cacti.

You also couldn't help but notice that the returning geese were often flying over at very high altitude. And by high altitude, I mean at times you could only hear the geese as they were flying through the clouds directly above you. If you did see them, they would be in their V formation and individuals would be tiny specks moving across the skies above. These were definitely birds arriving from and going to somewhere. It was as if they were on a highway in the sky and we were just a quick stopover on an important journey elsewhere.

This inevitably brought out the same questions each year: Where are these birds coming and where are they going? What are they eating and where do they stop? How far could they fly without stopping? And of course the old standby question of how do they know where to fly? Without the internet or a university library, I didn't have any answers close to hand. Now its easier to answer such questions and it turns out that ducks and geese can fly up to 600 miles in a day. While there are several relatively small staging areas in northern Nevada, only 450 miles southwest by the way a goose flies is California's Central Valley. Fly 300-400 miles northeast (or about 3/4 day of flying) of my hometown and you will arrive in southern Alberta. Another day or two, flying as a goose, would take you to the northern half of that province and goose breeding paradise. If anything, I now marvel even more knowing that the entire trip from southern California to northern Alberta could be done in 4-5 days of flying over the relatively uninviting desert and mountain environments.
Canada Geese. By A.N. Frost, Paul's middle son.
In some ways, I think its now quite easy to take Canada geese and mallards for granted. They are extremely common in southern Ontario (and elsewhere) and seeing them rarely evokes a second thought. They are treated as pests, unwelcome visitors, or simply a part of the urban backdrop. I find this a bit sad given the astonishing nature of their annual migrations and the importance that it carries.

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