Thursday, 11 April 2013

Maize Inn Motel - 6



Driving across the isolated dirt-packed prairie road in South Dakota had been sublime, not a soul had been seen all afternoon. I was alone but not lonely, I had Betsy, my camper van, for company. She was old and fat and comfortable; we had shared many adventures together. Today we were following the Lewis and Clark trail from Astoria to St Louis, a 4,500-mile journey of discovery.
    The late afternoon sun erupted into a spectacular display of gold and russet colours. I pulled off the track, parked Betsy on some soft scrubland and made camp for the night. Already the thermometer had dropped below zero. Time to make a welcome mug of soup, to sit and watch the sun's final rays whilst enjoying the solitude.
    I switched off the blanket of country and western music pouring from the radio, but instead of the expected tranquil silence, the air was assaulted by the mass honking of geese. Migrating groups of Canada Geese had flown overhead daily for the past three weeks. They were usually in social groups of 20–40 birds, occasionally giving out a solitary ‘honk’ as they changed leaders in their trademark vee formations. However, the honking I heard now was as thunderous as the traffic on Broadway.
     Just a quarter of a mile to the west, I saw countless geese formations circling and dropping to land in what looked like a newly ploughed field, thousands more were arriving in a convoy following the path of the Missouri River.
     I went across to the fence and saw that the 'ploughed field' was in fact a recently cropped maize field covered by a heaving ocean of birds already on the ground. This was no isolated gaggle of geese; it was a highly organized mass migration of fowl escaping the frozen climes of Canada, on their way south to the warm lushness of Louisiana.
     They had dropped into this ‘Maize Motel’ to rest up for the night, to dine on the freshly cut stalks and seek safety away from human habitation. Already there were 15–20 thousand on the ground.
     "Hey! This Maize is great, better than last night’s sagebrush."
     "God! It's good to stretch your legs again."
     "Yeh, it's not a flap too soon, I'm exhausted."
     "Did you see that amazing lake in North Dakota?"
     "Has the Gander Family arrived yet?"
     "Hey! Keep an eye on Donald, or we'll lose him."
     "Clear a space, here come the Quaker clan."
     The noise and din of their cackling conversations from a quarter-mile away was extraordinary. I had to be part of it. I grabbed a thick fleece, to guard against the freezing winds, and a video camera to capture the phenomenon.
A curious snow owl
     As I leapt the fence to make my way to the greatest pow-wow in North America, I spotted an owl sitting silently on a pole, mesmerised by what was taking place.
     I crept to within 100 feet of this cacophony of sound, when suddenly, the honking ceased, all went silent, an eerie hush hung in the chill dusk sky ... then without warning, a death-like screech went up, followed by a huge rush of air – the geese had spotted me and were panicking.
     Total chaos and confusion prevailed as 20,000 ungainly Canada Geese tried frantically to become airborne at the same time; wings beat and churned the air, collisions and cursing occurred, a whirlwind of feathers and fluff welled up as distraught screams and shouts were made in an effort to gather themselves into family clans and formations.
 Don't panic! Stay together guys.
     What had I done? The natural beauty of nature should never be tampered with. I had broken the rules and approached too close. Pandemonium reigned. It was a sad sight and I was to blame.
     I could do nothing. I stood there in a pool of shameful guilt, watching helplessly as they gained height. They grouped and regrouped, until at 500 feet they finally headed west, hoping in desperation to secure a little more daylight in their search for food and a safe haven.
     Slowly, I turned toward the waiting warmth of Betsy and followed my own lengthening shadow across the loam, the last of the sun’s rays cast a cold mocking sting of scorn on my neck.  
     "I'm sorry!" I cried out. "I'm sorry!" 
     But they didn't hear. No one heard.
     “YooTwit! Yootwit!” Cried the owl then swooped away.
     I was alone on a vast cold plain.
     "I'm sorry," I whispered.
     But there was no one to hear, no one to know.
     Except the owl ... it knew.
     I dragged my feet ... I knew.
     A milky moon gazed down ... and He knew.
Written by Roy Romsey.                                      photographs courtesy of Ray Barlow
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2 comments:

  1. A truly unique experience coming across these birds and one you were very fortunate to witness. Thanks for relating the events. The story reminded me of a time when by chance I came across some curlew chicks hatching amid long grass by a swamp. I could have stood and watched these for hours had the mother not been so concerned.
    RGM

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  2. Thanks RGN. It was a very surreal experience.I felt sad but privileged to have been part of the moment.
    Roy

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