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'Miles of birds on the horizon in every direction'
Hunter-Birders and a Modern Conservation Movement, Part 1
It is an hour before first light, the temperature is ten degrees below zero, and there is a blanket of snow on the ground under a smooth gray winter sky. I am joining Steve, my longtime friend and fellow farmer (turned agricultural loan officer) on a goose hunting trip near the Illinois River. We share a love of the natural world, and we are going to spend the day watching birds. As the miles roll by in the darkness, we talk of family, work, and what we can expect this morning. I feel the same mix of excitement and energy that I felt as a kid. I have always been fascinated by birds, I studied them in college and worked to restore bird habitat when I was a Land Steward with The Nature Conservancy. I am now a board member with the John Wesley Powell Audubon Society and an avid fan of the birding database eBird.
We come up to the Illinois River and cross at Pekin. We are entering into a wilder landscape full of conspicuous natural abundance and the ancient seasonal rhythms of migrating birds. We pass Banner Marsh, and 20 minutes later we pull into a rutted, snow-covered lane with a single set of tracks that meander through the meager light of our headlights. We carefully navigate the ruts and slowly make our way to our destination. Steve’s dad is unloading his gear and getting ready to walk out into the open cornfield. We are headed to a four-by-ten-foot hole in the ground covered with a wireframe and cornstalks. This is where we will greet the morning light and wait for the birds.
The first hint of sunrise lightens the sky and reveals subtle layers of cloud formations. A faint orange glow appears over the Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge as the sun approaches the horizon. It is silent. As the sky becomes infused with light, we hear the first calls of ducks and geese. Soon, great rafts of birds fill the sky. There are miles of birds on the horizon flying in every direction. My friend and his dad start identifying birds at what seems to me an impossible distance. They are mere specks on a distant horizon. At first, I was dubious and thought they may be joking, but as the flocks came closer and I confirmed their identity by looking through my binoculars, I realized that they were right. They really can identify birds from miles away with nothing but their vision and long experience of observing them.
They are identifying the birds with a wide variety of factors. The shape of the flock, the subtle and very quiet sounds of their calls carrying across the landscape, their silhouettes, the cadence and pattern of wingbeats, their height in the sky, relative size, and speed are all assessed intuitively and compared with decades of memories. They are intimately connected to these birds.
Now the sky is blushed with a diffuse orange glow dispersed through mixed clouds. The flocks are increasing in abundance against this beautiful backdrop. The scene becomes surreal and almost overwhelming in its beauty. The sights and sounds are ethereal and all-encompassing. The wild calls of Trumpeter Swans ring out above the din. The flocks have become great swirling masses that extend off into the distance farther than you can see. I ask Steve how many birds we are looking at right now, and he says ten to fifteen thousand. The sky is now full of birds. This is a direct manifestation of the fertility and abundance of Illinois and its namesake river.
As we watch the birds fill the sky we tell jokes, make fun of each other in a way that only old friends can, and talk about family, current events, and birds. Some days pass with this pattern holding throughout the day. Other days produce short periods of intense focus.
We are hunting Canada Geese. If a flock is flying low and coming toward us, Steve tells us to get ready, and the tension builds. The dog looks up through the corn stalk roof. Steve peeks through a narrow opening and unleashes an energetic series of Canada Goose calls. He reads the flock’s behavior and narrates for us. “They’re coming, they’re thinking about it, get ready.” More calling ensues. This series is louder and more intense, and the cadence picks up. He is telling the flock that they have been seen and that they are welcome to land. They are getting close now; I can hear their calls very clearly. This is the moment of truth. We are all waiting for the signal to take action. “They circled high above us and flew off to the west,” Steve says as he settles back down on his stool with a sigh of resignation. The geese saw something they did not like.
Canada Geese are smart and wary, and this scenario plays out to varying degrees most of the time. On rare occasions, we do manage to fool the geese. This is both exciting and sad. When it does come together, Steve’s intensity builds as he calls and describes the flock’s behavior. He can tell when they have committed to landing amongst our decoys. His voice takes on new urgency. “Get ready,” he says, as he conveys details of their behavior to us while continuing to call to the geese. You can hear the flock respond to his calls; they are boisterous, and they are coming in from the right about 60 feet off the ground. Now there’s a pause of a few seconds when Steve makes the final determination of when we should make our move. Time seems to stand still. We are poised and ready to move; life now appears to be happening in slow motion. And then we hear, “Take ‘em.” A clear and concise signal. We throw the covers open and stand up to scan the sky. Geese are everywhere. Some are circling above flying fast, and others are flapping their wings and coming in for a landing. It is a complex and confusing scene, and we have to act fast. Instinct and muscle memory take over, and the next 30 seconds are among the most intense experiences I have ever had as the world falls away, and everything but the geese fades into the background. Then it is quiet as gunsmoke disperses into cold air.
Our dog bolts and returns with geese. Now, we are face to face with these beautiful beings. I quickly move from excitement to sadness. We all feel it to varying degrees. For me, the intensity of the sadness matches the intensity of the excitement that precedes it. I prefer to directly experience the sadness associated with taking a life if I’m going to eat meat. This keeps me connected to the bittersweet nature of our existence. The cold weather, camaraderie, beauty, and prolonged effort are all now part of my relationship with this goose. This gives our family meals a deeper resonance and provides us with an opportunity to share with friends. Sharing a goose and the associated stories builds connection and a deep appreciation within our circle of friends.
Oh, it is hunters aloneRegret the beastly pain, it is they who love the foeThat quarries out their force, and every arrowIs feathered soft with wishes to atone;Even the surest sword in sorrowBleeds for its spoiling blow--Richard Wilbur (1950)
This is the first of two posts on the dynamics of hunting and birding. Look for Part 2 of the story next week.
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