Natural Observations–Snow geese!

Photos by Robin Song

Host and producer Robin Song relates the experiences of photographing the flocks of thousands of snow geese and Canada geese, along with cranes, swans, and ducks, feeding Palmer area fields in late April. Text follows audio.


Spring, this year, is unfolding slowly. Cold nights have kept the snow from melting quickly and the hayfields at the ranch are still sleeping under an unbroken white blanket. The Snow Buntings came and went in the first weeks of April. The peak flock numbered 16. By the 20th they had moved on. The massive flock of Redpolls, which had kept me company all winter, suddenly disappeared on the 19th. I knew they had to leave, sometime, and I tried to prepare myself for their absence, but I missed their noisy chatter all the same.


I received emails from the birding groups about more and more birds arriving in the North Country. When sightings of geese in Palmer began, I decided to make the trip down to see them. I had not seen the migration of Snow Geese since I lived in Ninilchik in 1987 and had gone to see them at their stopover near Soldotna. It was time.


I wound up going twice. When I drove down on April 24th, the clouds were coming in. I had taken a gamble on the weather. I found a few hundred geese on a small marsh by the Providence Center, and joined a couple of other photographers pulled over beside the highway. While there was no sunlight on the majestic birds, the mountains wreathed in clouds made for a splendid backdrop. In amongst the Canada geese were a few Snow Geese and White-Fronted Geese. Zooming in on my photos later, I also picked out American Widgeon ducks, Mallards, and a few Pintails.


I had picked up my friend CW at his home in Willow on the way down, and he was my driver for the day. We headed for the Butte, going by the recent sightings from the emails. Across from the Reindeer Farm we spotted a few hundred geese way out in the middle of a hayfield. Too far for my camera’s range. Just as we were leaving, a beautiful Harlan Hawk took flight from a tree branch above the car.


A couple of miles farther along the road we came around a bend and were passing yet another farm when I spotted geese in a field just beyond farm buildings. And then…there they were: thousands of geese! I grabbed CW’s arm. We pulled into the drive and CW went up to the farmhouse and knocked on the door. What could be described as Santa Clause’s farmer cousin answered and kindly gave me permission to go out into the field to photograph his visitors.

I spent the next two hours in birder bliss. A chill wind blew and eventually I put up my jacket hood. I hadn’t grabbed my gloves in my haste to get out to the field and after awhile my fingers grew stiff, then numb. I kept one in my pocket whenever I could. It was worth every discomfort, though. Barley seeds lay scattered on the ground from where they had been left last year and the geese were busy eating, preening and talking amongst themselves. Skeins of birds flew in from different directions almost non-stop. It was evening and it seemed they were coming in to this area for the night. There were far more Snow Geese here, and their white bodies dotted the field in amongst the thousands of Canada Geese.


When I had almost used up my camera card, I turned to go and walked slowly back across the field. Suddenly the birds all became quiet. I stood to watch them, and a silent signal was given, for in a single motion a huge section of the geese lifted into the air. Their calls began again immediately as they flew and they circled round and landed again farther out in the field. I knew I hadn’t spooked them, for they had ignored me no matter how much I had moved around. Just after they landed again, I spotted 7 Trumpeter Swans winging in over the trees behind me. The great white birds landed in amongst the geese, standing tall over them. I kept thinking how much more wonderful each photo would be with sunlight, so I decided I had to make another trip down.


Two days later I was on my way again. While it was overcast and windy in Talkeetna, on the phone CW said it was sunny in Willow and on south. I headed for the fields by the Palmer airport first and found several dozen Snow Geese in the pasture with the cattle near the Palmer cemetery. I was surprised to see the geese, along with some Canada Geese, walking over patches of snow and drinking from puddles, oblivious to the cows and calves moving around them. After a photo session I was itching to get over by the mountains, and headed for the farmer’s field again. When I arrived, there were a few hundred geese there, but many more were flying in. I had brought an extra camera card, and had my warm gloves, this time.


The sunlight made a big difference in the ambience of the photos. The geese flying against the blue sky and the sun lit snow on the mountains were breath taking. As I set up my monopod on the north end of the field, my back to the road, I heard what I thought was the sound of distant machinery running. It took me a little while to realize that it was coming from the geese. The shear mass of birds on the ground and arriving all the time was putting out a constant rumble of sound as they talked to each other.


About an hour in, suddenly all the birds grew silent. Heads went up. Then, of one accord, a huge section of the flock nearest me took to the air. Geese filled the sky around me as they circled and came around the field, to land a bit farther out. I looked around. To my left an immature Bald Eagle was settling onto the branch of a tall birch in the strip of forest along the road.


During the second hour I watched a huge flock of geese far across the field lift into the air, circle back and land again. Thousands of Snow Geese were in that flock. At my end of the field it was mainly Canada Geese with a few hundred Snows and a smattering of White-Fronteds. A flock of a few dozen Sandhill Cranes flew in and landed across the field, joining the geese at the far end. As with the prior trip, just before I left, a few swans came winging in-3 Trumpeters, this time.


A bank of clouds moved in from the west and dulled the light, signaling my time to go. It was hard to tear myself away from the spectacle, for I didn’t know when I would see its like again. Talkeetna is not on the flyway for the geese, which will be heading up to Delta, Paxton, Fairbanks, and points on west and north. Though a long drive, it was well worth it, and brought the spring alive for me while I wait for the return of more migratory birds to our area. Two days later I received an email that the first Rufous Hummingbird had returned to a feeder in Chenega Bay, in Prince William Sound. Ah spring, what a glorious time of year!


By Robin Song, 4-2013


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