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Earlier this week, I took a drive out to Central Nebraska to look for this year's flock of migrating Sandhill Cranes. They're huge, beautiful, noisy birds, and they stop over these parts to chow down on waste corn for a couple weeks to bulk up for the last 5000 miles of their migration north to their breeding grounds.
While looking for cranes, I stumbled on a small, rural lake full of Snow Geese. When I say full, I mean FULL; as my friend Darren remarked, when they land together during migration, from a distance, they actually look like snow on the ground. This lake was pretty much overflowing with geese. I'm not expert enough to give you a count, but I think that 10,000 would be a conservative estimate. Below is a photo that shows you the side of the lake where they were especially thin:
That's the only good photo I got of them on the water. You see, these birds are crafty; they'll gladly pretend they don't see you trying to creep up on them. I had a 300mm 2.8 lens on my camera, so I had some good zoom power -- but despite being a four pound heavy, 16 inch long lens, it's actually a bit on the short end for bird photography, so I had to try to get closer. I crouched, I crept. I thought I was doing rather good. But oh yes, they certainly knew I was there. The moment I crossed in imaginary line, perhaps 50 yards from the birds, I heard one of the most bizarre sounds I've ever heard in my life.
HOLY...!!! I nearly fell over. It was as if the entire lake had suddenly come unmoored and lifted into the sky in a giant flapping mass of honking feathers. There were to many birds to see through, all blasting up into the sky. I don't know how the heck they kept from ramming into each other, but I think air traffic controllers could learn a thing or two from birds. They rose and rose and rose above me. I pointed my camera up:
Now there were many more birds than this -- this is just a small fraction because of the extreme zoom of my lens. To imagine how many birds there were, pretend your monitor is 10 times as wide as it is right now and fill it all with birds. Or just look at the photo below, taken after I back up and put on a wide angle lens:
Some of them aren't in this shot because they're high above me, but as you can see there are still quite a few swooping in circles around on the lake, quite ticked off, from the sound of it. And then I head another set of unusual sounds... *plop*. *plopplopplopplopplop*! HOLY CRAP IT'S RAINING POOP, GET IN THE CAR! Turd bombs were landing all around me. If you've never seen goose poop before, realize that these birds are nearly as large as a small dog and so is their poop, though much wetter and slimier. You could actually see splashes in the lake, as if someone were chucking stones in it. These little buggers were aerial bombing me. Looking up, I felt like I was in London during the Blitz:
So after they circle back over the lake, I run back to the car where my wife is patiently waiting and having a good laugh. We take off, but not before a goose manages to plant a nice one on our windshield. I go and meet up with another photographer friend (her blog is here; I assume at some point in the near future she'll have some pics of her own up and maybe some video too, as she got to video what's coming next) and make our way back to the lake. By this point the birds are back in the water, patiently paddling around. The three of us make our way slowly back through the prairie grass, this time being even more careful to be quiet and low to the ground. They were relatively settled down:
While I figured as some point they might notice us, I didn't plan on getting quite as close, since I did want a shot of them peacefully gliding on the water. But I pushed my luck and...
We called it a day on that lake, and headed out to find some cranes. :)
I am always amazed by the large effects that random interactions can have over extended periods of time; for example, you likely wouldn't be here reading this today if your great-great-great grandpa hadn't sneezed at 2:47PM on some idle Tuesday. It blows my mind that simply walking forward in a field can set off such a massive biological energy expenditure, sending ten thousand birds high into the sky. I imagine several farmers from miles around probably stopped and looked up in the sky that day to admire the enormous flock of geese, and no doubt a few drivers out on the rural roads peered up through their windshields and wondered what the heck was going on up there. You've gotta love applied Chaos. :)