(This is part of a series of Field Notes focusing on our feathered friends as we get ready for the Birds in the Hills Festival, which will occur on Mother’s Day weekend, May 6-8.)
By Joe Brehm, Environmental Education Director
I clearly remember the first time I saw a barred owl. It glided silently across an old field and disappeared into the forest just before sunset. Though this encounter lasted at most four or five seconds, it left me feeling somehow more than I had been before, like I had become part barred owl. In the wake of that experience, I wanted to observe as many creatures as possible in that way, augmenting my being with all the interspecies connections I could fit into one lifetime.
Along this journey, I have also become part northern shoveler, a dabbling duck that most loves flooded green fields and shallow ponds in spring. Perhaps it is the “inner shoveler” that begs me to pilgrimage, this time of year, to Freezout Lake. Some years, I can answer the call. Other years, I must be satisfied to conjure images of this glacial lake, positioned along the Rocky Mountain Front where the plains collide with sharp mountains, which is a mecca for shovelers and virtually every other kind of waterfowl and shorebird in North America.
If you love birds and happen to find yourself at Freezout Lake in early spring, you will be greeted with a dizzying scene, and your eyes will dart from one spectacle to another wildly, trying to take it all in. It is not uncommon for Freezout to harbor 100,000 snow geese and 10,000 tundra swans, waiting patiently for their breeding grounds to thaw and feeding on leftover grain in vast wheat and barley fields nearby. They move in great waves that appear as mirages on the horizon, as they are disturbed by a hunting bald eagle or prairie falcon, or red fox prowling the lake’s edge.
The sky at Freezout is bright electric blue, like a mountain bluebird, the color of glacial ice. Snow geese and tundra swans move through the vast blue in stark Vs, coming and going in feathered waves. Many of the waterfowl–pintails, wigeons, gadwalls, blue-winged and green-winged teals, scaups, ring-necked ducks, goldeneyes, canvasbacks, redheads, buffleheads, clark’s and western grebes, coots–patrol the erratic open water along shorelines, or sleep with bills tucked under wings behind their backs. Cinnamon teals paddle the slow straight ditches that connect each vast pond to the others, voicing primordial grumblings as they glide across glassy water. Yellow-headed blackbirds call raucously from cattail tops.
For someone like me who has been drawn to waterfowl for many years, it doesn’t get much better than Freezout Lake. It’s a pinnacle experience simply to stand in the wind and hear thousands of soft wingbeats, and look into the golden sage eyes of a northern shoveler. Perhaps our ultimate purpose as human beings is to bear witness to this beauty.
Make no mistake, we have similar beauty here in the ancient waves of sandstone and mesophytic forest. Deep in our misty spring woods, in just a couple of months, the miraculous fluty songs of wood thrushes will drift past damp tree trunks covered in glowing lichen, signaling the rebirth of our land. I hope you will be out there to listen, and become part wood thrush.
(Field Notes is an occasional series that takes readers into local forests to learn about our natural world. Become a citizen scientist and join the more than 607 volunteers who have contributed close to 20,000 observations via iNaturalist to our “bioblitz” of the WNF’s Athens Unit, documenting roughly 3,904 species of plants, insects, fungi, mammals, birds, and more. You can join us by following instructions here.)