Friday, December 19, 2014

Bird of the Day: Geese. Lots and Lots of Geese at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge

You drive west of town, through the seemingly endless agricultural fields. The road gets more corrupted and full of potholes, and soon there is a sign saying "no outlet". Another mile brings you to a small dirt parking lot with a kiosk and a wooden viewing platform. You climb the short path to the top of the viewing area, and there it is: a field! The field seems empty except for a constant noise in the distance, and you finally realize that the sky is in motion, like white glitter, like a gigantic snow globe.
This is the Beckwith Road access point of the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge just west of Modesto, only about eight miles from the Vintage Faire Shopping Mall. The contrast between the parking lots crowded with shoppers and this empty field could hardly be bigger.
The Great Valley of central California was once the destination of millions, maybe billions of migrating geese, ducks, and other birds. Snow rarely falls on the valley floor and the temperature rarely reaches below freezing. Once the rains begin, the grass will grow all through the winter, providing a basic food chain with seeds, bugs, fish, amphibians and other creatures that feed the multitudes of birds when food is scarce elsewhere. The valley was a haven.
The value of the valley was apparent to humans. For thousands of years, people have lived in the valley alongside the birds and other animals, and drew sustenance from them. But in the last century and a half, the humans have changed the landscape, drying up the wetlands, and breaking up the prairie soils in favor of crops. Eventually only about 5% of the original landscape remained, and the birds no longer had many safe places to wait out the winter.

Over the decades, there were those who came to recognize the value of the birds, and eventually a series of wildlife refuges were established that allowed the health of the bird populations to be a priority. A visit to these refuges at the right time of year is a stunning introduction to the way the Great Valley used to be. There are birds here. Tens of thousands of Snow Geese, Ross's Geese, Aleutian Cackling Geese, and many others. In the evening, they start to settle in large groups, but occasionally something will startle them, a predator perhaps, and tens of thousands of birds will take to the air simultaneously. The sound of their wings is almost like a jet engine.
I still am in awe that I lived here for twenty years before I realized the treasure in my backyard. It is a wondrous experience to watch these huge beautiful birds flying so chaotically and yet with perfect timing and direction. Eventually they come drifting back to the ground, but the cackling never seems to stop.
How many birds are in this one picture alone? The flock we were watching was estimated at 30,000 individuals.

YouTube compression does awful things to my videos, but the short example below gives some hint to what it is like to see these birds in motion.

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