The Pulse of Ten Thousand Wings
NEARLY TWO HOURS BEFORE DAWN, the New Mexican desert is cold and still, silent and honest. Well, mostly honest. Stars cast the only light, the backdrop to a mountain range in silhouette to my west. In every other direction the slate desert dark and night sky meet at the horizon. I can neither see nor smell the juniper and mesquite shrubs around me. I hear only the rustling nylon of my down jacket and the crackling of my footsteps through desiccated grasses and brush. And then, from the darkness, I hear a sweet, hollow honk. Then another. And then a few more – proclamations for what is to come.
The dishonesty in this desert lies between me and the mountain silhouette: a shallow artificial pool about the size of a football field. Not quite glistening in the starlight, the pool has an odd glow – the night glow of 3,000 Snow Geese. They seem to gather the starlight, and from it manufacture their own soft desert radiance. Their body heat and paddling feet probably kept the pool from freezing last night. At 5:20AM, it is 26 degrees Fahrenheit. I will wait in the cold another 90 minutes until dawn. And as I wait in the darkness, the honking swells — better and louder.
By 6:40AM, now light enough for me to see, the geese are a packed mass of kinetic energy. Each adult is clean white with black wing tips, beady black eyes, and a wedged red bill. The young geese are dirty white. They swim and surface-dip head first. They rear back and up on the water to test their wings with a few determined flaps. The honking builds, like an L.A. traffic jam with everyone pounding the horn.
From the west comes faint new honking. Incoming. Two thousand more white geese approach like an airborne infantry. They disburse and glide in at various steep angles. Before landing, each one pulls into a stall with a dozen or so flaps and then lands, with more grace than commotion, among the swarming flock. As each goose touches down, its energy of flight becomes the energy of more honking, dipping, paddling. The geese are now more tightly packed, with yet even more kinetic force … and potential energy.
The night’s last stars fade into a desert dawn: soft blue overhead, clouds edged in sharp orange, and a mango haze to the east where the sun now climbs above the horizon. The pool is now a stage set for the drama of explosive flight.
With the sun now clearing the horizon, hundreds of Sandhill Cranes — big, gray, and indifferent to the mass of Snow Geese in the pool— begin to stir and utter their rolling, guttural bugle calls. A few cranes take flight, heads dangling on long, elegant necks, feet trailing on gangly legs. I spot an exceedingly rare blue-morph Ross’s Goose (pictured to the right), which becomes a later lesson in bird observation.
All of this – from darkness to dawn – might be taken as a scene of tranquility, a pleasant morning of birdwatching. It certainly is that, like a lavish (even outlandish) duck pond in a city park. And this pool is also a sanctuary. Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is a manipulation of the Rio Grande so that birds may come to rest — take sanctuary, even if an artificial one — in huge numbers during migration and winter.
But seeking more than tranquility, I have come to Bosque for action. As they dip and swim, flap and honk, the Snow Geese in this pool are a mass of commotion, a display of kinetic energy, like a symphony orchestra tuning up for a performance. Bound in each of these 5,000 geese is greater energy still — the potential energy of flight: the geese are 5,000 arrows drawn on 5,000 trembling bows. Hunger might soon launch the flock. Or maybe the sunrise. Or perhaps an eagle hunting overhead.
Whatever the trigger, I’m here for the drama of flight, a massive launch of ten thousand wings. And on some cue known only to the geese they go. Instant drama. Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto comes to mind. Or maybe Mozart’s Don Giovanni. But, with no apologies to my classical music friends, geese swarming in this pool and then lifting reminds me more of Roger Daltrey and the best rock-and-roll scream in the history of Western Civilization.
On this morning, there was no eagle. I cannot say what triggered the flight. But who cares? When the geese went up, the pulse of ten thousand wings was just that – a pulse, something you feel more than hear, something within. I could go on here with feeble attempts at profound descriptions of geese in flight. But I’ll leave you with little more than assurance that geese in flight like this, well, the whole thing simply feels so damned wonderful.
Below that are three more shots of Snow Geese in flight from Lake Champlain a year ago, when we saw Ross’s Gull and Ross’s Goose on the same day. And below those images, you’ll find a slideshow from Bosque del Apache (the place is profound).