This story originally appeared in the March/April 2016 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest.
Amy was pouring her first cup of coffee when I came inside. “Pull on a coat. You have to see this,” I said hurriedly. Still groggy from sleep and gripping her mug as she shrugged into a jacket, she complied.
After months of bracing ourselves for the bite of cold and wind when we stepped out the door, the change was a shock. The air on this mid-March morning was mild and still, soft on the skin and rich in our nostrils with the moist smell of mud and warming earth.
But neither of us really noticed, because our ears were full of sound. Everywhere we looked, skeins of geese were streaming north, a continuous din of honks trailing behind.
“Big Goose Day!” we both said, using the name my family had coined when I was a kid for that moment—longed for during the seemingly endless winter months—when spring announces its arrival on the wings and voices of countless northbound geese, the pent-up inauguration of the season of exuberance.
The waves just kept coming. The scientific part of me started divvying up the sky into quadrants and trying to estimate numbers—thousands of birds, clearly—until the saner, steadier part of my brain said: Stop. Just drink it in. To hell with science, just for now.
Amy drained her mug, went back for a refill, and returned. The flocks still came, dozens of skeins in sight and sound at any moment.
“You know, this never gets old.” I don’t know which one of us said it, but it’s true. There are some sights and sounds in nature, in birding in particular, that never grow stale. I catch myself saying those words under my breath a lot, when I’m dazzled by yet another of the everyday miracles to which birders are privileged.
I grew up in a time before America became one nation under Goose, indivisible, with resident flocks of honkers on every golf course, city park, pasture pond, and exurban office complex. The range map in my first field guide, Chan Robbin’s old 1966 “Golden Guide,” showed the reality in those days: a band of orange across the northern third of the continent where Canada geese nested (mostly in the Arctic and subarctic) and blue across the southern third, and the coasts, where they wintered.
In between, including where I lived (and still live) in the mountains of Pennsylvania, the map was crosshatched. For most of us, geese were a fleeting gift of the changing seasons.
It was a big deal to spot the first geese of fall, the first time in months that we’d heard those braying honks. It was usually a cold, blustery day in early October, right after a frontal passage, and the sound would come first as a tickle in my ear, from high up in the ragged, wind-torn clouds. I’d cock my head, peering upward, until I found the tattered V of birds racing down the sky, the honking louder and more insistent now, the indelible stamp of migration.
And only migrants. These geese came from the edge of James Bay, or up in the Ungava Peninsula in northern Quebec, or the barren-ground tundra of Labrador. They were passage birds, here and gone, racing overhead for a few precious days. Some might linger on the bigger lakes and reservoirs to our south until the seriously cold weather settled in after Thanksgiving. But then they were gone, too.
But it was in spring that we really kept our ears peeled. After a long winter of monochrome woods and nothing but juncos and chickadees at the feeder, we were hungry for any incontrovertible sign of spring. That meant geese. As Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac, the arrival of northbound geese, counting on finding safe, open water at the back end of winter “carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges.”
Some years the geese would dribble through in fits and starts, but most years— sometimes as early as February if it had been a mild season, other years as late as the end of March—there would come a single day with a moist, mild south wind, when the pale blue sky would be seething with geese. Chevrons and lines and tangles of them would reach from horizon to horizon, all clawing their way north with a zeal that seemed to echo our own pent-up thirst for spring.
“Big Goose Day,” we called it in my family, and it was as important a holiday on the annual round of seasons for us as are many that are more widely celebrated. And we still mark it; my mother will call us early in the morning, and say, “Have you been outside? Did you hear them? It’s Big Goose Day!” Amy and I will pile into our jackets and boots and race out the door, looking up as the squadrons push north, trailing their clamor in their wake, dragging spring behind them.
(I wrote about Big Goose Day once some years ago, for our state wildlife magazine. My youngest sister, a dental assistant in a small town nearby, was later challenged by a patient who had read my essay. “Oh, c’mon,” he said, incredulous. “Your family really celebrated this thing?” Jill, who is very definitely not a birder, reluctantly confirmed that we did. “But it’s not like we baked a cake or anything,” she said.)
Canada geese have long since ceased to be an electrifying benchmark of the seasons. In 1928, George Miksch Sutton wrote that Canada geese “do not stop long in Pennsylvania; most flocks do not linger here at all, merely passing over,” a statement still true in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when I was becoming serious about birding. But change was already afoot.
Pinioned geese of the huge, largely nonmigratory subspecies Branta canadensis maxima were released at a game sanctuary in northwestern Pennsylvania in the 1930s, and by 1969, the state was moving their many, many progeny to new pastures, expecting them to stay put and create small, manageable hunting populations.
We’ve seen how well that worked. There are now more than a million resident Canadas across the East, part of a continental population of some 5 million birds. “Sky carp” is one of the more polite terms applied to them, especially when someone is scraping green goose poop from their shoes after a walk in the local park.
But familiarity does not always breed contempt. Except for the harshest winters, when the snow is deep and all of the local rivers have frozen up, I see Canada geese virtually every day. In summer, there are a couple of pairs that hang out in our neighbor’s pasture behind the house, and by July the earliest fledglings are crowding together and flocking up.
Working in the yard in the muggy dusk of an August evening, I’ll see them take off, circling the cornfields and swinging over the house, 30 or 40 of them raising a hullabaloo of honks. By October, when I still catch the high, lovely sound of the Arctic geese coming back with the wind, the local flock will have grown to several hundred birds, feeding in the harvested soybean fields and loafing around the cattle pond. Now when they lift off to head for roost, in the fast-gathering dusk of an autumn evening, it’s a genuine commotion. I stand still, letting the sound roll over me, listening to the swish and rush of the beating wings. And I think: This never gets old.
There’s so much that never gets old. Another treasured spring ritual is just allowing myself to revel in the immense, mixed blackbird flocks that precede even the big push of geese. My office windows overlook a rolling expanse of fields on the neighboring farm, and soon after the last of the winter snow has melted, leaving the ground bare and brown, last-year’s grass matted and disheveled, the blackbirds come back.
The grackles arrive first, thousands of them in big, burly flocks, a roiling, black exclamation point against the drab, soft edges of the newly emerged landscape. The air is alive with their harsh chgggk! calls, as they carpet the fields, walking with that peculiar strut only a grackle can pull off—swaggering strides, its long tail cupped and held at a rakish angle.
For some reason, they usually seem to arrive on a dull day of overcast skies and warm wind, so their glorious sheen of purple and green iridescence is masked; the thrill for me is the sheer mass of them, the way the flock rolls over on itself, the hundreds of birds at the back continually flying forward to the vanguard, advancing in sheets of flight across the fields, an amoeba of wings and movement flowing over the land.
Within days, the red-winged blackbirds and cowbirds are back to join the grackles, and sometimes (though rarely, these days) a few rusty blackbirds in the mix. It’s chaos and noise when they’re on the ground, but let a harrier pop up over a nearby hillock, and they leap to flight, instantly transforming into a dense, coherent mass of nervous movement.
At dusk, flocks from miles around gather like tributaries flowing downhill, swarming the big oaks and maples along the stream a quarter-mile away, filtering from there into a dense stand of spruces and pines for the night. The sound coming from that direction is a gabble, and the naked hardwoods look, for a time, as though they’ve sprouted a dense canopy of black leaves.
What else never gets old? The first peter-peter-peter of the year, when the tufted titmice feel the earliest stirrings of hormones on a sunny but cold day of—well, usually not spring; I listen for the first such song in February, often when the thermometer is sulking down in the single digits. But in the lengthening days the titmouse knows in his bones what still seems theoretical to me: Spring is coming.
The dawn chorus never gets old. How can it? Every June, I return to the same spruce-girt island on the coast of Maine, where daylight comes too early for anyone but the birds and the lobstermen. I wake, nestled inside my warm sleeping bag, sometime between 3:30 and 4 a.m.; already there is a dim light on the eastern horizon outside the screened porch where I sleep, and already I hear the black-throated greens and parulas starting to sing. The high cascade of a Blackburnian’s song, the trill of a yellowrumped, the piping of a song sparrow. A winter wren elbows into the chorus, going on and on and on.
The sound gathers steam and volume as the sky lightens with daybreak. From the water, the first deep chugging of a diesel engine as a lobster boat heads out to pull traps; someone getting the jump, just like the birds, on important business.
Every season has its moments that, despite long repetition, never get old. Since I was 12, I’ve climbed the trails to Hawk Mountain’s North Lookout, scrambling over boulders I know so well I can almost count them in my sleep. I know which rock is best for sitting, which upright slab makes the perfect backrest, where to position myself so I can catch the sneaky goshawk that slips by low on the north side but also see the high red-shouldereds that like to slide off on the leeward side of the ridge.
That panorama is an anchor, the 270-degree sweep across landmarks I know like a beloved face: North Pinnacle, the Hunters Fields, the slope of Five, Donat, Owl’s Head. Forty-five years of watching, and more hawks than I can possibly count have passed by them through my binoculars. How many basically identical sharp-shinned hawks can one guy see, year after year, before he gets bored? How many redtails like carbon copies, how many swirling broadwings in kettled flocks before it loses its thrill?
You’ll have to ask someone else.
Amy’s second mug of coffee was empty, and she had to get dressed for a meeting. I had things to do, too, deadlines and phone calls that seemed important a little while ago, but not so much now. Let it all wait. The geese were still pouring overhead; Big Goose Day was far from over. I closed my eyes and felt the warm sun on my face. This never gets old.
Author and researcher Scott Weidensaul’s latest book is The Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean.