One day last week near Jantzen Beach in Portland, the sky resembled a scene from the old Alfred Hitchcock movie, “The Birds.” I was with three friends on the way home from a shopping trip when, on the east side of Interstate 5, portions of the blue sky were blacked out by thousands of birds.
Unable at first to tell what species of bird they were, we finally determined they were Canadian geese — I learned later the correct term is Canada geese. The Canada goose is the most abundant of all North American geese, and I’d never seen such an abundant flock of geese as this.
The birds flying near Jantzen Beach formed an irregular V-shape. Some veered away from the group like youngsters who step out of line before recess. In a group, the geese turned and started moving west.
As they crossed the freeway, only our driver kept her eyes on the road. The other three of us craned our necks to watch the geese fly overhead. At the other side of the freeway, they landed in the wetlands, almost as one, slowly decreasing their elevation and setting down softly just south of Jantzen Beach. It was an impressive sight.
The next day, driving back to Woodland from Longview, I spotted a large group of Canada geese in a field just north of the site of the proposed high school, along the Pacific Flyway. This time, there were hundreds, not thousands.
I know better than to go anywhere without my camera, but I didn’t have it in the car. I hurried home to get it, and then drove out the dirt road that led to the area where I had seen the geese. I took several pictures and marveled at the sight and sound. As I snapped photos, a truck went by on the freeway. When he blew his air horn, the geese prepared for flight, lifted a few feet off the ground, and then settled back onto the field.
Wanting to know more, I called Steve Engle, ornithologist with the Audubon Society in Portland. He’s the one who told me these birds are called Canada geese, not Canadian geese.
“These geese are a complex species,” Engle said. “There are Canada Geese and cackling geese and several subspecies. The two look similar but the cackling goose is smaller and makes a higher-pitched noise.”
Once breeding grounds are selected, migrating birds return to the same area each year, guided by the sun, the stars, and their senses.
According to Engle, the birds winter at two key areas near the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers, where there is high quality wintering habitat. “One spot is the north end of Sauvie Island in Oregon,” he said. “It’s an important bird area because of the large number of wintering waterfowl. Another is Ridgefield , across the river in Washington. You will often see geese moving from one side of the river to the other between these two spots.”
The geese generally migrate from the north, depending on the subspecies and different breeding areas. A lot come from western Alaska: the Yukon and Kuskowim Delta. “It’s sometimes called the Y-I Delta,” said Engle. Others come from southeast Alaska near the Copper River Delta.
The number of birds in a flock varies. “When you see the birds flying in a “V”, said Engle, “look for different sizes. If they are prominently different in size, you are seeing both cackling and Canada geese.”
When you see the birds flying in their V-pattern, it is so they can fly in the “slip-stream” for energy efficiency and drafting.
I asked Engle how far the birds must fly to reach their wintering grounds.
“The greatest distance is about 3,000 miles,” he said. “In general, the breeding range begins just north of the United States border, and some only travel from Vancouver, B.C., to Portland.”
Keep your eyes open, and your camera and binoculars nearby. This is a good time of year to view the spectacle of migratory birds, right here in and near Woodland.
Visit Pat Nelson’s blog at www.storystorm.wordpress.com.
Reprinted with Permission, South County News/The Daily News November 7, 2007