We all know the old adage that "nothing worthwhile is gained without a sacrifice," and birders learn it early on. A case in point is last week’s trip over to Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area in Addison, VT over in the Lake Champlain Valley. We knew driving over conditions might be challenging. The end of week weather forecast had been ominous with strong, gusty winds and snow showers a very likely possibility. Cancelling the event had been considered. Fortunately, the forecast was revised with its snow element being replaced by afternoon rain showers.
Arriving at the refuge, and disembarking from our vehicles, it was clear conditions would be challenging whatever level or kind of precipitation occurred. Thick, gray clouds passed overhead, and a high, steady wind blew down from the northwest across the lake producing a wind chill that made the recorded 40 degree temperature seem considerably colder, a sensation that would not abate as the day wore on.
So why drive two hours and put up with that discomfort? Two words, snow geese. During fall migration, Dead Creek is the place to be if you want to experience the unparalleled spectacle of thousands of snow geese stopping to “refuel” on their way south. There is nothing quite like the sight of the flock rising from the field like a great, swirling white cloud spiraling skyward, their flapping wings creating a vibrating, “wind through the trees” roar that is accompanied by the cacophony of innumerable honking calls. It is an awe-inspiring sensory experience quite unlike any other.
For us, the geese were very cooperative. When we arrived at the “Goose Viewing Area” located two miles west of Addison on VT Rt. 17, the geese were on the ground perhaps a half mile away, a huge swath of white spread across the emerald green pasturage. As we watched, a few groups of ten or so birds each would flutter up from the larger flock some moving off, others settling back to the ground. Then, with no warning the whole flock took air causing spontaneous exclamations of “Oh, my!” “Awesome!” and “Look at that!” to emerge from our group.
This time the flock settled down upon from where it had arisen. That is not always the case. Sometimes a large movement and display is the precursor to the flock relocating to another sight and not one that is visible. (See “With Birding, Timing is Everything,” The Upper Valley.com 2014-02-17).
Beyond hosting the snow geese, Dead Creek is an important, migratory stopover for a large variety of birds. Thus, despite the less than hospitable conditions, the outing proved very productive as a birding event with 47 species recorded.
Among the day's highlights was a cackling goose that one of our group somehow managed to pick out when the snow goose flock was aloft. Also seen were the seasonal field birds: horned larks, pipits and snow buntings, as well as a small (25) flock of migrating red-winged blackbirds and a pair of American tree sparrows.
Waterfowl in addition to the snow geese included an overhead flock of Canada geese while at Brilyea Access were observed mallards, American Black ducks, green-winged teal, American widgeon (2) and a solitary northern shoveler.
Raptors were present in limited number and variety. Those recorded included a bald eagle, rough-legged hawks (4), red-tailed hawks (2) and northern harrier (2).
Despite the day's many achievements, it was with considerable relief that I placed my well-chilled and weary body back into my car and made a beeline for a hot, cup of coffee. Driving home I would reflect, "Yes, it had been a struggle, but the vividly-etched memories of those snow geese would remain long after the chill was gone."