At the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Willows. Sound comes at you from the sunset, underneath the dome of an aqua-blue sky, the blue banded on its low end by a smaller band of flax yellow, which sits atop a blood-red horizon that melds into the purple of land. The sound is impossibly loud. Two, five, ten -- who knows how many thousand snow geese have lifted from a marsh forming one huge skein of geese, a swarm of geese, a living tornado of geese, and is flying toward me, honking and flapping, making a noise so loud that its sound is all there is to hear.
This. Is. Thrilling.
I'm here for the cranes, the winter, the marsh, and the fog. Cranes are supposed to be the oldest living bird species. I've been told they're 6 million years old, and, in flight, they do remind me of pterodactyls -- too long, too boney for our times. This is my first birding trip, and I have beginner's eyes. I don't know anything. I don't know what goes where. I don't know the slang. I don't know which birds are cool, which ones are ordinary. I don't know which birders are respected, which birders are ridiculed. For a little while I can enjoy all of it, unfiltered.
I'm with a group of birders -- 52 of them -- and two leaders. Everyone drives their own car, couples mostly, and meet, in this instance, at the Sacramento refuge. I like the take-care-of-yourself pace; be there on time or be left behind. It's a surprisingly brisk march through the day, and then dinner and to bed. This is a three-day trip.
I don't do well with groups -- never cared for them -- but I make all the group meets and take the tours (you have to be around someone who knows what you're seeing). But the group stays at the Best Western in Willows; I hole up in the Motel 6. They eat at the expensive Mexican restaurant-resort; I eat at the neighborhood cantina with Willows cops.
There is a bit of truth to the birder stereotype. I make the median age as 60, and every birder is white. Men in khaki pants and Tilley hats. Women wear L.L. Bean casual slacks and dark sweaters. We are wary of each other, but I'm giving it a try.
It was 3:45, 4:00 p.m. before we left the visitors parking lot. Sunset was on. The Sacramento refuge has a drive-through African park sort of thing. After an overlong period of whining and begging from our environmentally friendly bird guides, we load up four to a car, drive onto a dirt byway that winds six miles around the refuge.
There are marshes on both sides and more birds than I've ever seen. A lifetime of birds. We drive 50 feet and stop. Four binoculars arise (we're not allowed out of the car). Birders regard the vista, then drive another 50 feet and repeat. Finally, after 40 minutes, we come to the lookout, which is a large platform set on stilts. Birders stretch, walk around, man binoculars, take pictures, chat. We'll exit the refuge and drive -- sometimes for an hour or two -- to another refuge or vantage point and do it again.
They've got names, the birds do. I might be able to say four or five from memory. Follows is taken from my notes. We saw white-faced ibis, white-fronted goose, snow goose, Ross's goose, cackling goose, red-tail hawks, northern pintail, mallards, pied-billed grebe, tundra swan, northern shoveler, herons, sandhill cranes... enough. The point is, there are about 3,000,000 ducks and 1,000,000 geese around here or on their way. That's the draw. It's an inconceivable number of birds; almost half of all waterfowl who use the Pacific Flyway migrate here.
The numbers are staggering, and you can feel the numbers. There's an opening in the reeds giving way to a view of 200 pintails. Another opening over there reveals 500 snow geese. Resting flocks are mixed together and constantly adjust their members. Birds pack in, butt feather to beak -- so many, on a scale so different than anything I'd seen before, as to be closer to Alfred Hitchcock than to Walt Disney.
Looking north, beyond what you can see with your eyes, but in good sight with 8.5 x 44 binoculars, is another lift-off of blackbirds. This one is immense...looks like a black cloud, maybe a mile long, running left to right. Blackbirds by the thousand, by the many thousands, turn as one and fly south. Ten seconds later, in unison, the flock turns toward the west. I hear myself say, "I can see why people do this."