I’m usually a sound sleeper, but this morning I was wide awake at 4 a.m. One phrase from a conversation the previous afternoon kept going around in my mind.
“You should see them come in off the water at sunrise, if you want to see something really spectacular!”
That previous afternoon my wife, Mary Belle, and I were visited a large grassy field opposite Heritage Park in Stanwood. In the field right beside us were thousands of snow geese, those beautiful white visitors that migrate to the farm fields in Snohomish and Skagit counties every winter to feed on grass and leftover crops on their way to Siberia.
Several others were parked nearby us. As a man walked by our car, I said out the window, “It doesn’t get much better than this, does it?” He smiled and said it does get better — at sunrise.
I slipped out of bed and made my way down the hallway. “Alexa,” I half whispered, “When is the sunrise today?” She answered in her friendly but artificial voice, “Sunrise will occur at 7:09 a.m.”
We had time! But now the challenge was to awaken my soundly sleeping wife and sell her on the idea of leaving a perfectly warm bed, forego breakfast and face 27-degree temperatures.
A gentle nudge on the shoulder drew an immediate and understandably sarcastic response. “What!?”
“Let’s go back to that field by Heritage Park and watch the geese come in off the water as the sun comes up.” Then I waited.
Much to my surprise and delight, she responded almost immediately with a “Wow! Let’s do it!”
At 6:45, in total darkness, we pulled off onto road alongside the sprawling field where we hoped the geese would return in, now, a matter of minutes. Then we waited. And waited. And waited.
At precisely 7:09, the sun began creeping up over the Cascade Range. Several seagulls, then crows and two eagles visited the field. But no snow geese.
But then at 7:30, Mary Belle blurted out, “Look! Here they come!”
And there they were, just above the tree line and headed our way. With our car windows rolled down, we could hear their faint honking. And where the first flock appeared another pulled in behind them. And then there were three huge flocks of geese heading directly where we hoped they would come: back to the same field where we had watched them the day before.
And on they came, hundreds of wings flapping methodically in seemingly endless V-shaped wedges coming right for us. Except they didn’t land in the field. They kept flying.
As we looked skyward, there immediately appeared a fourth flock, twice the size as any of the previous three. We were speechless with anticipation as we watched and waited.
And then it happened. As we watched, that huge formation of black-tipped wings, brightly shimmering in the early morning sunshine, all quit flapping. It seemed as if in unison those wings were stationary but slightly cupped as they glided sharply downward.
Upwards of a thousand geese were choreographed in a sweeping, twisting aerial ballet as they circled the field. Their honking became more of a deafening chatter as they neared the ground.
Which one of them decided just where to land, we can’t know. But all of a sudden, hundreds of little webbed feet were reaching toward the ground as they gently landed, and then their pink bills almost immediately began nipping at the tender grass shoots.
For the next 30 minutes, the spectacle continued, as the snow geese emerged from the saltwater sanctuary where they had spent a night safe from predators.
Just when we thought the din of geese couldn’t get any louder, it did. We realized that the first three flocks, which had flown on by us, had apparently looked in their rear-view mirrors, did a sudden about-face and were rapidly diving and twisting to join the thousands of their feathered friends who were already on the ground.
There was scarcely a bird left in the sky. Their raucous honking had subsided into a contented chatter as they settled in to feast on the grass.
We had done it. We had watched the spectacle that our fellow birdwatcher had encouraged us to see. It was indeed an experience of a lifetime. We were able to witness this cycle of God’s creation in such an unforgettable way.
This was a sunrise like none other.
Bud McDole lives at the Warm Beach Senior Community. He has studied and observed snow geese and trumpeter swans since moving there 10 years ago. He gives lectures and sponsors bus tours to see the birds at the annual Port Susan Snow Goose & Birding Festival.