Winter-weary Alaskans were not the only ones who took notice of our late breakup this year. An April snowstorm and an unusually cold spring meant a chilly homecoming for thousands of migratory birds. They arrived by the hundreds only to discover that rivers and lakes were still locked in ice. Snow covered the open fields. When a tiny crack in the ice finally widened at Spring Creek in Palmer, dozens of waterfowl flocked to the open water. The result was a congregation of wings, a cacophony of sound, and a convergence of humans eager to welcome this harbinger of spring.
Birders, families, and folks just out for a Sunday drive came to watch. Cars lined up along the dirt road and next to the railroad culvert. People and their cameras spilled out of vehicles to enjoy the long-awaited sunshine. Canada geese, snow geese, greater white-fronted geese, mallards, and a family of swans shared close quarters awaiting warmer temperatures and a little more room to stretch their wings. A lone eagle sat watching with interest from a nearby tree.
There is something about the notion of migration that intrigues people. It is a movement as rhythmic and predictable as the rising and setting sun. There is wonder in this – and questions. Where has that family of swans been since they last swam Alaskan waters? What thoughts do they harbor when, after thousands of miles of travel, they arrive to find the hard reality of ice-bound waters?
When I returned with my own camera just four days later, the scene was much different. With the temperatures finally creeping upward, the open water had expanded. Now there was plenty of room; waterfowl, while still plentiful, had dispersed to more comfortable spaces. Despite the weekend’s earlier sunshine, today a cold rain drizzled. The people and cars were gone. It seemed that a calm had descended over the creek, perhaps a collective sigh of relief that spring had, at long last, arrived.
I sat with my back to a tree and watched geese paddling in quiet circles, eating sedges, snails and other aquatic fare. Some slept on the snowy bank, with heads tucked under their wings. Mini-dramas between individuals erupted in angry squawks and feathered chases across the snow. Now and then, through some collective decision, an entire flock took off. Some circled around and came back. Others left for waters beyond the horizon. Who makes the decision to leave, I wondered? Who decides where they will go?
The unmistakable cry of swans came near and I strained to see them against the gray sky. Then the pair appeared, trumpeting their arrival with their distinctive bugle call. Eight-foot wing spans flared as they settled with a whoosh on the water in front of me. They paddled around in the open, snow-encrusted pool, long necks dipping deep. Water dripped from their beaks. With quieter snips of their trumpet call, they burbled to each other and watched me, pausing their feeding when I shifted my position on the bank.
After twenty minutes, the swans looked at each other, bobbed their heads several times, and imperceptibly moved to face the same direction. Then, with necks outstretched they lifted themselves up, churned the water with their webbed black feet, and with white wings beating, lifted their bodies with tip-to-tip synchronicity into the evening sky.
After taking a few more photos, I made my way back to the car. Another vehicle had joined mine. A woman sat in the driver seat, window rolled down, with camera in hand. She asked if I knew the identity of a small bird whose photo she’d just taken – a little black dipper. We talked birds and photography and she introduced herself as Katie Rousey. She has lived in Palmer more than 50 years and watches each spring as the migration unfolds not far from her front door. She doesn’t think of herself as a “birder,” just someone who likes wildlife and photography. Her photos of the dipper were stunning. We hadn’t been talking long, when two young men arrived with a big camera and a spotting scope. Luke Decicco and Scott Schuette, friends from Anchorage, consider themselves birders from way back, having loved wild birds since they were children. Like me, they were interested in Katie’s stories of this area of Spring Creek. She said it would likely be only a few days before most of the geese and swans would head still further north towards Fairbanks.
The four of us were all brought together by a fascination of movement – two young men, a middle-aged woman, and a gracious older woman who, for half a century has been neighbors to this yearly ritual. Migration is as ancient as it is new each year. Watching birds arrive in the spring and leave in the fall is a reminder that all of life is movement. Seasons change. Few things remain the same. For whatever yearning we might have for things to remain unchanged – that our children would always love us, that our hands would never grow gnarled with age, that our memories would always remain fresh – movement, of course, means life. A body that is not in motion is a body permanently at rest.
And so we move in patterns of our own migrations, predictable perhaps in the scope of human patterns, yet new and perplexing to each of us as we live our individual stories. Maybe the best we can hope for in the journey is open water and a peaceful place to land.