Last night, about half an hour before sunset, my friend took me to the Jeffrey Energy Center Wildlife Area near Belvue, Kansas. A fourth of this wildlife area has been designated as the Oregon Trail Nature Park, and there are still-visible ruts along the ground from wagon trains that crossed the country over 150 years ago.
We walked up the trail as her dog bounded ahead, and each hill we crested widened our view of the land. I love the sweeping views in Kansas. It was that time of day where the winter light was incredibly clear– everything had a warm, orange glow, and the fields were a patchwork of every brown and gold color on the spectrum. The sky was cloudless and faded from light blue to a soft violet.
She had taken me there to see the snow geese. There is a large man-made lake in the park, created by the energy company to act as a buffer and source of cooling water for the enormous, coal burning plant that lies in the middle of the prairie. It is the largest coal-burning plant in Kansas. Thousands of migrating snow geese visit this man made lake in the fall and winter. As we walked further into the park, more and more geese flew over our head in enormous “v”‘s, leaving the pond in large groups for an evening meal in the surrounding fields. There were hundreds in the air, some right overhead and some so far in the distance that they were barely visible. ( I didn’t see the wagon train tracks… probably because I was too busy looking at the sky!)
As we crested the final hill, we saw the lake. There were thousands of white geese on the water, cackling and calling to one another. Almost as if they were waiting for an audience, a large group of geese lifted off of the water, breaking from the colony, and began circling in the air. Some continued to circle and then lowered themselves back down onto the water, while others rose high and higher until they began to fly away from the lake and form their wavering flight formations. We walked along the lake for about twenty minutes, and more and more geese left the pond, filling the sky in all directions.
In the distance was the enormous coal plant, with three towering smock stacks spilling white-grey smoke into the blue-violet horizon. It was the opening scene of an environmental documentary, with the camera first focusing on the graceful flight of the white birds on the peaceful water, and then lifting to show the industrial pollution of the factory in the distance as the ominous music swells.
The white geese moved in large groups (called skeins) and flew with slow, deliberate wing beats. My friend told me that the darker geese were juveniles, while the mature geese where white with black stripes on the wing. We compared their flight to the smaller flocks of ducks, whose hurried, almost panicked wing beats and high whistling noises reminded us of the Muppet named Beaker. Some hawks soared between the flocks of geese and ducks, using air currents to easily swoop through the air.
We both had a lot of questions about the geese, but few answers between us. When I got home that night, I looked up snow geese in Max Thompson and Charles Ely’s Birds in Kansas: Volume I. Snow geese travel along narrow corridors for their winter migration to the Gulf Coast. In the 1960s and 1970s, over 300,000 birds used Brown County Kansas Lake (further east). According to Thompson and Ely, over 200,000 birds overwintered there! They were causing crop damage and so the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks scared them away from the lake and discouraged settlement. They have found other large bodies of water in Missouri and northeastern Kansas to use on their migration routes or as places to stay for the winter. I wonder if any of the geese at the Oregon Trail Nature Park will overwinter there.
Update: I came back to the Jeffrey Center a few days later in search of a snowy owl that’s been spotted there (blissfully avoiding my final paper of the semester). No luck with the owl, but I took a few shots of the lake and the geese. It was the middle of the day, so most of the geese were out foraging and not on the lake. But as I walked back down to the parking area, hordes of geese flew overhead, returning to the lake.