Pulling up to the stop sign, I thought there was something wrong with my motor.
I’d been looking for snow geese at Twin Valley Reservoir west of Champion so I had the windows rolled down to chase out the warm air that would hamper focusing if, by chance, I actually saw something. None there, just a couple of goldeneyes and a lone mallard, but I left the windows rolled down as I headed back to the main road just in case.
And then, as I slowed down at the intersection, I heard a soft, high-pitched rattling sound. Quickly, I looked down at the gauges. Nothing amiss there. I let my foot off the brakes. The sound got louder. Perplexed and with my foot back on the brakes, I got to the stop sign. Glancing to the left to check for oncoming traffic, I saw that the source of the sound wasn’t coming from the truck.
It was coming from a flock of maybe 500 snow geese that was flying right at me.
I’ve been on the lookout for snow geese for the past month or so but not had much luck. I did find a few east of Strathmore but that was only a single flock. And my faithful ponds out by Bassano — as well as Crawling Valley Reservoir — had none at all.
True, we are on the western edge of the usual snow goose flyway — hundreds of thousands of them fly over Saskatchewan — but we usually get a few big flocks of them passing through anyway. So far, though, none.
But back a week or so, before the ice and snow, my pal Mike found a pretty big bunch of them out by Frank Lake, east of High River. So, just after sunrise, I headed in that direction to see if they were still around.
They weren’t. The fields around the lake were uniform sheets of dazzling white snow with no sign of any bird activity. And on top of that, Frank Lake looked to be frozen over. I didn’t think it had been cold enough for long enough to completely congeal such a big body of water. But, it had.
I drove around it anyway just on the chance there might be open water that I couldn’t see, scanning the horizon for flying birds. But there was nothing.
Nor was there anything of the open stretches of water on the Little Bow River just to the south. I’ve often seen swans there but not today. The dugouts and sloughs I passed were either dry or frozen and the snowy fields, though crisscrossed with deer tracks, held nary a sign of any duck or goose activity.
There were plenty of little birds, though.
Redpolls breed in the Arctic and spend their winters down in our part of the world and today, they were everywhere. Flock after flock took off from the ditches and the leftover stands of grain in the fields and they seemed to enjoy teasing my lens. I’d see them take off and follow them until they landed only to have them take off again as I aimed the camera.
Cheeky little things, I tell ya! But I finally did get a shot or two.
By now, I was approaching Twin Valley Reservoir, a lake formed by a dam where the Little Bow River and Mosquito Creek meet. I was hoping the depth and volume of the lake would be sufficient to keep it ice-free and in that, at least, I wasn’t disappointed.
But unless there were a lot of birds up on the part of the water that I couldn’t see, there was a distinct lack of feathered friends. The usual suspects were there, goldeneyes and mallards, but nothing else. So I turned around and headed back to the main road. I’d seen a couple of swans on the river below the dam so I figured I’d try for them.
But then I heard that sound.
At first, the geese were coming at me in a series of wavy lines but then they started to veer away from me so I pulled out onto the road and drove to catch up to them. Which I barely did. I fumbled the camera as I aimed out the window but I managed to catch the end of the flock as it flew toward the water.
Following them back to the lake, I found the mass of them but they were far out on the water and in a spot where I could barely see them. I grabbed a couple of pictures anyway but they weren’t great.
Seeming them, though, raised my hopes. Clear Lake — between Stavely and Champion — was just down the road and if it was also ice-free, there might be birds there, too.
It was and there were.
No snow geese but both trumpeter and tundra swans and hundreds of ducks. There were coots bobbing close to shore and Canada geese flying around. Hunters, too. I heard the pop of shotguns coming from down the lake.
The sound carried clearly and crisply, as did all the sounds. The chirps and chortles of the tundra swans and blooping baritones of the trumpeters, the laughs of mallards and peeps of killdeers — still a few around — were able to reach my ears almost perfectly. Because there was no wind.
The lake was flat, with most of the ripples coming from swimming birds. I could hear the redpolls and sparrows in the trees behind me as clean as I could the ducks across the lake. I could hear snow geese, too. And the sound was coming from two directions.
Squinting a bit, I could make out a big flock flying off to the north, too far away for any pictures. I could hear them easily, though. But the sound coming at me from the south seemed to be getting louder. So I fired up the truck and headed out to find them.
I needn’t have bothered. I caught up with them just a couple kilometres down the way but the main part of the flock veered east and headed right for the lake. Quickly, I turned around and headed right back to where I had been. Minutes later, I was parked back in my previous tracks and the air was shattering as wave after wave of snow geese landed on the lake in front of me.
The sound was deafening, not only the sound of 500 syrinxes hollering away but a thousand wings beating and a thousand webbed feet hitting the water. Looking through my long lens, the viewfinder was filled with a wall of birds, all vying for position as they set down on the lake.
Once there they continued to gabble and squeak as they swam around until, with a roar, they all took off again. No idea why snow geese do this. It seems pretty random but many times I’ve seen them just jump into the air, fly around and land again, sometimes even in the same spot.
These ones moved farther up the lake but a couple of shotgun pops later they were back in the air again.
OK, that was more like it. After thinking the geese had bypassed us for the year I had now found two pretty decent flocks — three, if you include that distant one — and I was happy. But, as with trying to push myself away from a buffet, I wanted more. And Keho Lake was only about a 40-minute drive away.
The first sighting of geese came as a bit of a surprise.
Instead of being on the water, they were feeding right beside the road in a field just off the southwest corner of Keho. Sliding to a stop on a slick of tire-compressed snow and mud, I managed to spook the ones closest to the road into flight and as they lifted up, the entire flock began to shuffle around.
This was a much bigger flock than back at Clear Lake. Hundreds upon hundreds of them were chirping and peeping out in the snow-covered stubble, groups of them undulating like waves across the field. Most of them were white-feathered, their plumage mimicking the snow, but several of them were varying shades of blue. Some were speckled with brown on their chests while others were nearly black except for their necks. The greyish feathers on many of them gave away that they were the young of the year.
Mostly, they ignored me but then a bunch of them rose up in a roar of wings at the far edge of the flock and that set off the nearest ones as well. They flapped up like a sheet on a clothesline, a near solid mass of, I dunno, maybe a thousand birds that spun upward and then settled back onto the field again.
But their movement caused a second flock that I hadn’t yet seen to rise from an adjacent field, a flock that seemed to be even bigger than this one. And as they spun around, birds started rising from the lake itself. They joined the second flock and flew off in a mass that took a good two minutes to pass.
How many birds? I dunno, a couple of thousand at least. So hard to make any kind of accurate guess but comparing the mass to the flock at Clear Lake, it was at least 10 times that size. At any rate, it was the biggest bunch of snow geese I’ve seen in years.
They wheeled away toward the horizon while the ones in the field had settled down out of easy camera range, so I pulled away and sloshed through the increasing muck on the roads to the lake itself.
Keho is big by southern Alberta standards and it takes a while to freeze up. There was a bit of ice in the bays but it was thin and mostly broken up but the lake itself was like a giant mirror. And that was almost as big a surprise as the geese.
Keho Lake is almost never calm. Here in the chinook belt, it is almost always in motion and crashing waves are way more common than dead calm. But today, swans and ducks were following their reflections as they swam along. Flocks of snow geese — yes, there were even more out on the lake — chirped among sparkling ripples created by their own bodies.
At the far end of the lake, I put the little drone up for a look and the main part of the lake beyond the slushy ice in the bay was flat and looked more frozen than the ice itself.
Along the shores, there were partridges and pheasants, rough-legged hawks that posed nicely for me. A bald eagle out on the ice had its lunch interrupted by a magpie. Flocks of Canada geese flew by.
And every time I stopped I could hear the snow geese. They were in the corn fields north of the lake, in the air to the south. I could see them on the water all along the protected southwest shoreline and in the fields just beyond. So many geese, so many.
I’d finally found the big flocks I’d been hoping for but it won’t be long before they’re gone. Winter, like it or not, is on the way and the south is calling. Though these might not be the last of the big flocks to pass through, there won’t be many more.
But come next spring, they’ll return.
And I’ll be back to look for them again.