If you’ve never seen a flock of hundreds of thousands of large birds, it should be on your “bucket list.” The first time I witnessed this spectacle in January 2010 was during my North Carolina photography workshop. I’ll never forget it, and have since hoped that I’d get to see it again.
For the past several years, on our way back from visiting my parents in North Dakota, I’ve noticed a sign on I-29 for “Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge.” It turns out the refuge is only a few miles off the interstate, and because it’s only 2 hours from home, I knew it would be a good day trip.
In my research I came across extremeinstability.com, storm chaser and photographer Mike Hollingshead’s site. He has some incredible images of birds at Squaw Creek NWR, and this truly inspired me to contact him for more info and to make a trip to the refuge.
It took some convincing, but I talked Marly into getting up at 4:30 am on New Year’s eve to make the trek. We actually got there a bit early and it was completely dark.
We drove around the refuge loop and after a mile or two, the first faint light started to reveal the water. In the distance I thought I could see a dark cloud low to the horizon that was moving. I rolled down my window to listen, and sure enough, I could hear the cacophony in the distance.
We found a spot to park as close as we could get to the action and set up our gear. The biting wind was gusting around 40mph and made photography and videography a real challenge.
It’s a good thing we got there when we did, because it wasn’t long before the mass of geese, about a hundred yards from the road, started to leave the water. I quickly realized that I had made a tactical error in not bringing my video tripod for the camcorder. I really was torn between wanting to shoot both video and stills, and switching out the cameras on a single tripod wastes a lot of time. I won’t make that mistake again!
Here are several images I made from “the exodus:”
The uproar of the loud honking and your entire field of vision being filled with flying geese is unforgettable.
The action was over in about 40 – 60 minutes as the last of the birds made their way to nearby fields for breakfast.
Here is the short video I shot that morning. Best viewed in HD and full-screen – click the “HD” or “Vimeo” button:
After driving around the loop and exploring the rest of the refuge, we eventually noticed the clouds of geese returning to the water. Unfortunately they were all gathering in a spot that was fairly remote and we weren’t able to get close to them again. I did manage to get some video (which starts at around 3:04 in the video above) and some long-range stills. This one shows the birds streaming in and forming a “geese tornado:”
Now I can’t wait for the spring migration!