November 03, 2010
Chasing the white bird in Dakota Territory.
In the inky blackness of pre-dawn, somewhere in Dakota Territory, headlamps bob amidst the stubble of last year's corn crop. Over the crunch of yellowed stalks, a low, steady roar rises in the distance emanating from a frozen lake a full four miles away.
Flaggin' for attention.
Geese--thousands of specks, snows, and honkers--stand roosted atop the ice awaiting the rising sun, breakfast and the incessant push north. The ground, too, is half-frozen, only stubbornly accepting the stakes of 1400 windsocks that look rather silly in the absence of the southwest breeze promised by the weatherman.
As the last of the decoys are positioned, a tinge of pink lines the eastern horizon, and the draft of wings can be heard over the drone. Bull pintails buzz the spread, whistling their approval of our ruse. Blinds are brushed up, guns uncased, and the wandering eyes of the hunters begin to scan the graying sky for lines of geese. I snuggle in to my layout and doze for a minute or so, resting my eyes for the trial ahead, but my snooze is short-lived, for as the sun cracks the horizon, the squawking speakers of an electronic caller break the reverie, the yipping of a digitally-remastered flock of snow geese jamming the airwaves.
Skeins of geese rise from the lake and wander north. The sun begins to shed its warmth across the prairie, and it would seem that our spread serves as the road sign demarcating the "no-fly" zone. But lack of feathered traffic is soon a memory as a flock of geese clears the leafless trees of a nearby farmstead, straggling in our direction. The birds form a disorganized swarm, gaining altitude as they near our spread, a sure sign they are snows.
A unique and added bonus to any hunter's lanyard.
The birds arrive, several gun ranges away and locked into their trademark spiraling; heads swinging back and forth, an army of eyeballs closely inspecting each decoy, while the geese hang like vultures up there in the stratosphere. The scene changes rather quickly as a second wave of birds pushes in under the high flyers, some birds "maple leafing" to rapidly drop altitude.
The second band recognizes the field from the eve before and a tornado ensues, the lowest birds slowly descending to within range. I'm lying on my back, peeking through my cover of stalks, and the birds appear motionless, as if painted on the sky itself, a pleasant trick of depth perception and flight mechanics beyond my reason. The white heads of the blues stand out like light bulbs as the birds float above us.
Finally, a pod of birds makes a mistake, dropping that fatal notch before making another swing. Looking up through layers of birds I hear the call to action and five adult snow geese are met with a barrage of steel from the guns below. Two birds tumble from the atmosphere and a third sails, then collides with a spray of half-defrosted topsoil. Dogs are released to their chores and layout blinds are quickly snapped shut as another wad arrives on site.
Specks and Canadas criss-cross under the ceiling of snows, and I envision the coming fall when these same honkers will shun our hospitality on their return trip. A pair of Rossies commits suicide amidst the swarm, dive bombing the spread like a pair of mallards, and quickly find themselves scooped up by an enthusiastic black Lab.
A picture-perfect sunset with dead fowl in hand.
In a matter of seconds, we are awash in geese anew, and the chess match ensues. Flags are raised and fluttered to the ground to attract interest. A rising breeze has given the dekes new life, a waddling flock of feeding geese replacing the army of dead white sacks that stood just a moment before. A single blue breaks in from the left, well within range, but dodges the shower of projectiles and climbs to safer airspace.
The flock disperses, but is quickly replaced by a new round of web-footed recruits. We are center stage for a goose melee, but given the untold numbers of geese that flood the air; our meager take of 15 seems rather inconsequential. Our success is a little sweeter knowing that most are adult birds, hardened travelers with a post-secondary education in decoys, hidden blinds, and the maximum range of a three-inch shotshell.
We spend the rest of the day on the flip side of snow goose hunting, a threesome of hunters barreling down gooey gravel roads that lie thawing in the sun of a spring afternoon. The truck is a mobile ball of mud, our reserve of washer fluid quickly exhausted. We ride windows down for a better view of the geese, and often, the only view of the road ahead.
The horizon is dotted by tornadoes, mobs of snow geese spiraling down to feed in harvested fields or to loaf about on some unmolested pothole. We zig-zag cross country in search of the right flock, a vortex of birds swinging too close to road or fenceline, or a feeding flock that can be snuck upon using the available terrain. We knock on a few doors and make a few long belly crawls, but are left with nothing but sore knees and a coat of fresh gumbo.
Finally we find the right flock, a tornado whose epicenter is half a mile out in a harvested cornfield, the fringes of the whirlwind swinging over a gravel road as the feathered storm rotates. We belly crawl the ditch for several hundred yards. The geese are deafening, swarming field and sky. A blue and white mob swings wide, still out of range, but close enough that my partner's trigger itch gets the best of him and he volleys. The birds flare without a feather ruffled, the center of the storm merely shifting another quarter mile in response to the disturbance.
We trudge back to the truck, our steps heavy and slow as the rigors of the day catch up to us. Light wanes as we roll back toward town, dark lines of geese stark against the setting sun. I am beat, my spirit glazed and drowsy, but I smile as the scarred prairie hurtles past my dingy window.
Spring migration is nothing short of magnificent, whether the observer carries a scattergun or not. Mother Nature's silent whispers call her feathered commuters to full parade, resulting in a road show that's had a longer run than anything Broadway has ever conceived. And the
re is no finer stage than these wide-open spaces to witness the spectacle, laid out in an open field watching the skies as thousands of birds stream northward. I am thankful that in a world ruled by microchips and cell phones, these wild birds continue to thrive, making an ancient journey that we will never fully understand.
Daniel Isermann is a freelance writer and fisheries scientist from Brainerd, Minnesota.