We were invited by our friends Jeff and Betty to Merced in the central valley to view the Snow Geese in the last few days before their mass departure. They have over wintered here for many years and every day, around sunrise and around sunset, they have a mass takeoff – moving from their feeding grounds to the water. It is usually from one part of the Merced Wildlife Refuge to another. But on this day, they had flown out of the reserve and had been feeding on private land adjacent to the reserve. There were probably 2-3 thousand birds still in the flock. We got there around 4:00 in the evening and this gave us time to drive through the rest of the reserve viewing the bird life. It was plentiful. We quickly saw White-faced Ibis, Common Snipe, two varieties of Egret, many hawks, a heron or two, Black-necked Stilts, and ducks of several varieties. The biggest surprise were the Sandhill Cranes still in the area.
After the trip through the reserve, we found a nice vantage point to watch the impending mass take-off. Experience had told our friends which way the geese would fly once aloft and we were able to plant ourself directly in their flight path. We broke out the wine and cheese and waited. It wasn’t long before it started. It began with a decided uptick in the noise level, followed by various parts of the flock rising and falling. Suddenly, they became airborne. They circled just a bit then headed in our direction. As they approached, the noise level from their call increased, and we began to hear the whooshing sound of their beating wings. Eventually they passed directly overhead and it was an otherworldly experience. It sounded of high winds in a rain storm. The weather was overcast with high fog, and the light was dimming quickly. My photographs are not great, especially since I just had to put down the camera and experience the moment.
The next morning Mary and I returned to to refuge on the way home. We could find the geese nowhere, and I wondered if they had left for the year. After we left the refuge, we spotted 73 Sandhill Cranes about 50 yards off the road. We had been seeing and hearing them as they flew overhead the evening before, but this was a much closer vantage. Still too far to photograph effectively, so we just watched for a while before leaving for home.