﷯A Chorus of Wings: The Birds and Refuges Along the Pacific Flyway

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Jerry Grant - Sanctuary

 

 

 

Nearly fifteen years ago when I began this project––though I didn’t know, at the time, it was a project–– I thought of myself as a photographer of landscape, not wildlife. Again and again, though, I found myself photographing exactly that–– the migrating birds inhabiting the wetlands landscape along the flyway. From their breeding grounds in the Arctic, the migration path stretches all the way to the tip of South America; with over sixty percent of the waterfowl, ducks, swans, geese, and cranes, overwintering right here in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys. One wet winter day years ago, I was driving down Highway 20 from Grass Valley in the Sierras––a drive I’d made countless times in warm weather–– winding my way along a two-lane road from the Sierra foothills past Bridgeport where the Yuba River widens and the land flattened out.  The neatly gridded rice and corn fields in the valley had flooded in the heavy rains, and there before me¬–– swans.  Yes.  Swans everywhere; swans flying below thick black telephone wires, swans flying above them, swans flying past a red farmhouse and metal granary tower, swans skidding down on the water, wings folding in, swans, a riot of swans, swimming in an exclusive new swan water-park rice field. It had been a long sodden winter. Days of endless rain, not the dulcet drizzle of Paris in spring, more Gothic bleak with brooding skies and pounding downpours that turned the world gray and brown; mud and water running everywhere, rivulets running down the sidewalks, overflowing street drains, and creek beds. Brown, brown, brown.   I was sick of the rain and equally sick from a lingering flu that had left me tired and dispirited.  And here were swans celebrating the extravagant wealth of water. It was easy, watching their exuberance to toss off the winter malaise I’d been wearing like a hair shirt.  I began digging in, learning about the flyway and the birds that lingered in winter, twenty miles below the Sierra foothills where I lived. Every chance I had that year I’d grab my camera gear and head to the nearby refuges or to the flooded fields north east of Yuba City. I even stopped dreading the rains knowing when they came the great migration would also begin. For nearly fifteen years now I’ve followed the migration along the Pacific Flyway; from of the nesting grounds of the shy Trumpeter Swans in Alaska’s Copper River Delta, to Freezeout Lake on the Rocky Mountain Front, in Montana, through Eastern Oregon and  Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, to Bosque Del Apache in New Mexico–– the winter playground of thousands of Rocky Mountain Sandhill Cranes––and again and again, into the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys in California. These wetlands are the last places in the West where wildlife in the millions still thrives.  With so much life of the planet already extinct these soggy bird paradises become places in which to hope again. Through the years photographing these marshy retreats, I have found a particular beauty in the quiet backwaters, the mist filled mornings, the meandering rivulets, the silver ponds, the low rising yule and reeds, which on clear days offer up views on the horizon of Mt. Shasta, the Steen Mountains, the Northern Rockies or the Sierra’s. Each winter when the fields of stubble are flooded they fill with snow geese, white face geese, every variety of duck, and tundra swan who spill out well beyond the boundaries of the winter ponds in the wildlife refuges that dot the great central valley. The refuge system supports every shade of feathered life, numbering in the millions. From November through March the sky becomes a honking undulating mass of life.  Beating wings from a hundred’s of thousands of geese lifting off a pond becomes a symphony. .   *********************** Looking back, now, I think my interest began even before I first encountered the swans; when I lived in Berkeley and walked Nora the Dog on a piece of landfill where no leash was required in the Berkeley Marina adjacent to Cesar Chavez Park, which was manicured and where no weeds were allowed. The neglected old dump-site grew helter-skelter full of Irises, Queen Anne’s Lace, Anise, willow and brush, some over ten feet tall. Here native and non-native plants–– not knowing they were interlopers––grew together in every direction. In the rainy season the overgrown spit of land along San Francisco Bay gave birth to marshy ponds. I don’t remember the moment or the year, but I remember the day, or rather the kind of day. The bay fog hung low in the sky, small slits of silver light pierced the cloud cover. In the Tules and cattails a great white egret stood on one foot, then loped along, moving more like a camel than a bird, its long neck curling and uncurling in rhythm to its stride. The moment the egret spotted me, not ten feet away, it took flight. Awkward and cumbersome the ungainly bird thrust its long neck and yellow beaked head forward, kicking its feet behind when it left the ground.  Once airborne¬¬¬––body stretched out and wings in motion––The egret soared without effort, gliding with uncommon grace beyond the pull of gravity. The elegance and ease with which the bird flew, tapped into something mysterious within, as if calling to some primal part of my own psyche.  Bruce Chatwin once wrote in The Nomadic Alternative that civilization, which required living in one place, was a recent event and an anomaly. People had been nomadic and tribal for hundreds of thousands of years before the development of agriculture and industrialization, with their requisite permanent settlements.    Chatwin thought civilization was contrary to our nature. Reading it gave credence to my own life. I’d moved around, traveled often and felt disquieted when I’d been stationary for too long.  Was I being pulled towards this huge migrating community because it echoed something from my personal or our collective past¬––something buried deep in our DNA.  Perhaps. Perhaps not. I do know, however, that when I am out in the marshland something is made whole. When I began, I only knew what I saw–– water, bird, tree and sky––an undifferentiated whole. Over the years I have learned to specify, to name Teal and Bufflehead, Grebe and Trumpeter. Yet something in the naming, steals or rather, shrinks my vision. I still prefer the undifferentiated whole.  The ribbon dance across the sky, the diamond pattern of flight and the distant gaze as this passing life slips into the infinite. The birds are here and gone, but the land, in its constancy, a pliant lover, remains, readying itself for each new season. ********************** One March, not long after I’d moved from the Sierras to Montana, I was walking in Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge in the Bitterroot near my home.  A light snow was falling.  Some Canadian geese congregated at the edge of a partially frozen pond near a tall stand of cottonwood. Somewhere behind me, came a chittering guttural call, as if from the beginning of the world. A big hatless man, with his rust colored Carhartt jacket flapping open, greeted me on the trail. Nodding upwards “Sandhills,” he said slowly “The first sign of spring.” Just then three Sandhill Cranes appeared in the piebald sky flying in a long single line across the snow-covered Sapphire Mountains.  Those Greater Sandhill Cranes date back two million years. The age of the Pleistocene is their bones, in the architecture of their flight.  Surely, they know something of survival. So, each year I search for guideposts in the winter sky, waiting for the birds, one more time, to sing up the world again. Because––I know–– there is far more to be learned than to teach.            . For more information please contact Barbara Michelman.  

 

Please contact Barbara Michelman for more information.