Updated: Dec 31, 2019
I pinch myself. I really am in Tanzania, a stone’s throw from wild elephants sheltering their young between trunk-like legs and giraffes stretching their necks to nibble leaves. Zebras create stunning black and white graphic displays as they cluster in various arrangements. At night, I shiver as a lion’s roar seems to vibrate my tent walls. How can I be so lucky to live out these long held dreams?
What I hadn’t anticipated was the almost mystical awe I would feel surrounded by thousands of wildebeest and zebras, a co-mingled migration peaking during our safari. Everywhere I look, they cover the plains of the Serengeti. I get a sense of the inherited force that dictates their journey, a route they have followed for a million years. Over that vast stretch of time, the wildebeest birthing cycles have adapted to the nomadic needs of the herd - the mothers all give birth within a couple of days of each other. All around me, wobbly-legged baby wildebeests are bleating, trying to keep track of their mothers. Like a puzzle made of thousands and thousands of pieces, the herd becomes a single entity.
It’s now more than ten years later, and the grim awareness of species extinction and habitat loss has me longing for animal abundance, even if it’s only a temporary respite. I crave being overwhelmed by numbers and reassured by cycles that have been repeating themselves for millennia. I need a migration. Thanksgiving is just a few days away. What better time for a feast. I can’t zip off to the Serengeti. How can I feed this hunger?
I discover there are a series of little known wildlife refuge jewels, between Sacramento and Chico in Northern California, easily accessible just east of Highway 5. I’ve traveled this monotonous highway countless times. How is it I’ve never stopped before? My son and I pack for a quick overnight trip and take off.
Three hours later, Jackson and I walk into the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge Information Center to pick up tips and maps. We especially need a crash course on waterfowl. Entertaining us with fascinating details and anecdotes about the 300 different bird species that visit here, the ranger then sends us out on a six mile “Auto Tour Loop.” Despite our initial disappointment regarding needing to stay in the car, we discover our Subaru is the perfect bird blind. The fowl ignore our presence and we needn’t worry about stressing them during their journey’s interlude as they nourish themselves with grasses and leftover grains from flooded fields.
The clouds darken and rain spatters our fogged windshield as we slowly inch along. We roll down the windows for a clearer view, craning our heads out the windows, binoculars now a fifth appendage to our body. The cold wind funnels through our window, dousing us with moisture. We roll the windows back up, laughing as we dry the lenses of our binoculars. This routine gets repeated over and over.
We love the raptors. These marshlands, densely populated with a variety of ducks and geese, are a table set for a hawk feast. They too have been in need of this migration. We stop every fifty feet, thrilled to see so many species. Two harrier hawks vie over territory until one retreats to the roadside tree, the other swooping low over the meadow. We involuntarily exclaim each time we see a kestrel. The smallest North American falcon, its colorful plumage delights us, whether it’s perched or hovering over its prey.
Dusk is descending quickly, making it more difficult to pick up detail. Just as we decide to leave, my son points across the road. “Mom, look, a great horned owl!” “Where?” “On that log on the ground just across the canal.” The owl is perched, as are we in our stopped car. We observe the horned tufts, the massive head rotating on its axis, the patterned feathers ruffling in the gusts. We speculate – why is it out before dark? Is it resting or already hunting? As we leave the refuge, we agree this is a perfect ending to our day.
The next morning, we consider several wetland options and choose the Gray Lodge Wildlife Refuge. Again, restricted to our car except at designated areas, we find a pullover spot next to a large expanse of shallow water. We get out, tugging our jackets in tight. The strong wind makes it hard to hear each other, but the birds are even louder. Hundreds of snow geese honk as they rise from the marsh, forming layers of white V’s against a clear blue sky. Hundreds, if not thousands, remain on this patch of water, resting, paddling, munching grasses. I’m not sure what soothes me more – the visual or the auditory evidence of their numbers.
Various duck species, displaying striking feather patterns, swim close to shore. Our brief education at the Information Center is paying off. “That looks like a ruddy duck and I think those are shovelers.” “Wow, the coots really do need a long runway to take off from the watery surface, given their plump bodies.”
Back in our metal bird blind, we pause to photograph egrets near the road. The greater visibility today allows us to take in the vast numbers of geese that are wintering on these managed wetlands after flying from Alaska. We are lulled by the peacefulness until a bald eagle cruises over the marsh. The geese rise en masse in a thunderous roar of wings; then quickly settle back down after the threat passes.
Three miles and four hours later we creep back to the starting point, our eyes exhausted, our necks stiff, but our curiosity only whetted. We are already talking about coming back next Thanksgiving. I will savor this feast until then.
The next day, eating breakfast on my deck, I do what I always do – I watch the bird feeder. It gives me such pleasure to follow the comings and goings of juncos, chickadees, house finches, and warblers, as well as being amused by two chipmunks that opportunistically snatch any fallen seed. After such abundance, these birds seem so tiny, so few in number, though this has been my ongoing source of sustenance, and will be, until my next migration in search of plenty. I feel too big. I want to be dwarfed, to be greatly outnumbered, just another perched animal among many, looking to feed myself.
The Sacramento Valley is the most important wintering area for three million ducks and one million geese traveling the Pacific Flyway. Since the early 20th century, humans have filled 90% of the wetlands; thus these managed wildlife refuges are essential to the sustainability of more than 300 bird and mammal species that rely on this habitat. It is heartbreaking to imagine these snow geese flying from the Arctic Circle breeding grounds, arriving hungry and exhausted, only to find their destination of the past thousands of years has vanished. Unfortunately, this has been the experience of many migratory bird species across the globe. It is vitally important that we keep the remaining wetlands safe for future migrations.
Photos taken by the author and her son, Jackson Allen.
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