Roads of Magnetized Air

April 13, 2016

Migrating geese flying over the Skagit Valley

Migrating geese flying over the Skagit Valley

“I believe in those winged purposes . . .”
— Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself

While we were awaiting sunrise, a long necklace of migrating geese flew high over the Skagit Valley.  How fortunate we happened to be at this spot at just the right time.  Witnessing this natural mystery felt like a gift in a day already full of natural wonders.





by Jane Hirshfield

Whales follow
the whale-roads.
roads of magnetized air.

To go great distances
exactitudes matter.

Yet how often
the heart
that sets out for Peru
arrives in China.

Steering hard.
Consulting the charts
the whole journey.

“Every map is a guide to finding the desireable and navigating the dangerous.”
— Rebecca Solnit, Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas




Sandhill crane migration, Nebraska

The Sandhill Cranes of Nebraska
by Billy Collins, from Aimless Love

Too bad you weren’t here six months ago,
was a lament I heard on my visit to Nebraska.
You could have seen the astonishing spectacle
of the sandhill cranes, thousands of them
feeding and even dancing on the shores of the Platte River.

There was no point in pointing out
the impossibility of my being there then
because I happened to be somewhere else,
so I nodded and put on a look of mild disappointment
if only to be part of the commiseration.

It was the same look I remember wearing
about six months ago in Georgia
when I was told that I had just missed
the spectacular annual outburst of azaleas,
brilliant against the green backdrop of spring

and the same in Vermont six months before that
when I arrived shortly after
the magnificent foliage had gloriously peaked,
Mother Nature, as she is called,
having touched the hills with her many-colored brush,

a phenomenon that occurs, like the others,
around the same time every year when I am apparently off
in another state, stuck in a motel lobby
with the local paper and a styrofoam cup of coffee,
busily missing God knows what.


Sandhill cranes in Nebraska, flying above the Platte River


Sandhill crane

Last year at this time I was journeying to the Platte River in Nebraska to see the migrating flocks of sandhill cranes feeding for their long journey north.  I am so glad that I made the effort to witness this migration at least once in my life.  Natural phenomena like the sandhill crane migration are a mystery and a wonder and bring to new life a word like awesome.

I don’t always make the time to seek out these great spectacles of nature.  It’s not just a matter of limited time, but of financial considerations and prioritizing this type of travel.  This winter, for example, I did not drive north even once to see the flocks of snow geese over-wintering in the Skagit valley.  I have seen them several times in the past, but it is my loss not to have seen them this year.

As the seasons cycle, we have many chances to stop and enjoy Nature’s unique offerings.  We can take the time to notice, or we can get wrapped up in other things and miss out.  The words of Billy Collins’ poem point this out.  Missing out happens with regrettable regularity.

Spring seems to bring a succession of opportunities in my immediate local environment.  Just now the Yoshino cherry trees are blossoming on the University of Washington campus.  I did make the effort to see them once again.  How lucky I am to be able to do this!


Cherry trees on the quad at the U of W campus








A cluster of over-wintering monarch butterflies, Pacific Grove, California

A cluster of over-wintering monarch butterflies, Pacific Grove, California

The life cycle of the monarch butterfly is fascinating.  It takes four generations for the monarch to migrate hundreds of miles from the Rockies and Midwest to the wintering grounds in California and Mexico.  Several years ago I was fortunate to witness the transformation of a caterpillar into a chrysalis.  (I took pictures of the various stages and wrote about it here.)  And on this California trip, we sought out several over-wintering spots so that we could see the monarchs at the end of their journey.

We stopped at the monarch grove at the Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz in the afternoon.  We saw several clusters of monarchs, which looked very much like dried leaves, and lots of butterflies flitting in the air or warming their open wings on branches of the eucalyptus trees, their winter home.  All of them stayed high in the canopy.

We stopped at the monarch grove in Pacific Grove in the morning, and except for one butterfly, all held their wings tightly closed in the cool air, and none were flying.  Their camouflage is so effective, it would have been very easy to miss seeing them.

It seems a mystery that of all the thousands of eucalyptus trees along the California coast, these butterflies seek out just a few groves to settle in for the winter.

Pacific Grove monarchs

Pacific Grove monarchs

Cluster of monarchs in the eucalyptus grove at Natural Bridges State Park

Cluster of monarchs in the eucalyptus grove at Natural Bridges State Park

Another cluster at Natural Bridges

Another cluster at Natural Bridges

Notice the chewed leaves

Notice the chewed leaves










Making a landing

Making a landing

The annual migration of snow geese to their winter feeding grounds in the Skagit Valley is in full swing.  I am always thrilled when my visits to the Skagit Valley coincide with the snow geese’s feeding schedule.  I saw these birds settled in a field along the road on Fir Island, which is best reached via the Conway exit off of I-5.

Skagit Valley snow geese








Autumn Geese
by Valerie Worth, from All the Small Poems and Fourteen More

One long

The whole

Skagit Valley snow geese in flight

I love day-tripping to the Skagit Valley to see the flocks of snow geese that winter in the area.  Each October, they migrate from their nesting grounds in Wrangel Island off the Siberian Coast.  They spend the winter feeding in the fields of the Skagit Valley and roosting in Skagit Bay before returning north in March.  You have a good chance of seeing the snow geese near Conway and Fir Island, just south of Mount Vernon.  They are an awe-inspiring sight.

Sky filled with snow geese in flight

Incoming, ready for landing

Snow geese feeding on the wet fields of the Skagit Valley

Taking wing

The flock settles in a new feeding area.

“The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.”
—  Wallace Stevens, from “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

Flock of blackbirds on the driveway

Sometimes I am in the right place at the right time.  I was coming back to the farm after a trip to town and saw this flock of blackbirds on the driveway.  I was fortunate to have my camera in the front seat beside me, so I was able to take a few photos before they continued on their fall migration.  It was like something out of National Geographic!

I approached the feeding flock in the ditch.

Blackbirds taking wing

The flock rises into the air

Blackbirds, like swirling black snow


Birds on the Wing

October 4, 2009

Birds on the wing over the Columbia River

Birds on the wing over the Columbia River

Something Told the Wild Geese
by Rachel Field

Something told the wild geese
     It was time to go.
Though the fields lay golden
     Something whispered, — “Snow.”
Leaves were green and stirring,
     Berries luster-glassed,
But beneath warm feathers
     Something cautioned, — “Frost.”
All the sagging orchards
     Steamed with amber spice,
But each wild beast stiffened
     At remembered ice.
Something told the wild geese
     It was time to fly, —
Summer sun was on their wings,
     Winter in their cry.