Friday, January 8, 2010

Duck, Duck, Goose

Forty-four percent of the waterfowl using the Pacific flyway winter in the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. So Robert and I decided to visit with our friends Roy and Josine.

(I have not thought a lot about birds in my life. My main thoughts about birds have been: 1) it is creepy when people keep them indoors in cages; 2) parrots are amazing; and 3) I am not crazy about pigeons.)

It was a beautiful day in Willows: cold (temperature: 48 degrees), cloudy, and foggy, rainless, windless. We inched along the public viewing road of the Refuge in the back of Roy and Josine’s truck, which is high off the ground and allows better views of the marshes, rimmed by tangles of cattails and reeds. We were the only people on the road, except for the occasional ranger.

In an hour and a half, we saw snow geese, mallards, red-shouldered hawks, buffleheads, red-tails, one kestrel, one enormous owl, several rabbits, a lone deer, and at dusk, a slouching coyote clearly looking for dinner.

We brought binoculars and stopped often, gazing out over what seemed an endless vista of waterways (the Refuge contains tens of thousands of acres) and watching countless flocks of ducks and coots and geese. I have seen these birds often enough in parks, but there was something magical about watching them here, where they are unbothered by kids running at them to make them scatter, where no one is throwing bread crumbs at them.

I am a particular fan of owls (as is my son), so it was especially exciting to spot one high in a tree. He was tall and fat and the tree was leafless, but he was still hard to see, until I trained the binoculars on him. Out here, you become aware of the power and beauty of camouflage. I know it’s science, but seeing it in action, I think it has the feel of the divine about it. God is protecting His creatures.

I do not understand how anyone can possibly enjoy hunting an animal with the intention of killing it.

After driving through the Refuge, we ate dinner at a local casino. (Roy and Josine have a senior discount.) At the table next to ours sat a group of young men who might have been truckers. (I am basing this on some pretty tired generalizations having to do with the sporting of flannel jackets and greasy pony tails. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps they were nuclear physicists.) Midway through dinner, we became aware that one of the young men was choking. Before any of us could move, one of his buddies ran around the table and began Heimlich-ing him. The young man coughed up whatever had been lodged in his windpipe. Then he sat, looking relieved and chastened. (Earlier, I had noticed him shoveling big forkfuls of macaroni and cheese into his mouth.)

It struck me later, how jarring it all was. One moment we were breathing in the gray, frigid serenity of the Refuge and, only an hour later, we were in a smoky, low-ceilinged cafeteria, surrounded by fluorescent lighting, women in hairnets, and all-you-can-eat trays of mashed potatoes and chocolate pudding, watching a young man struggle to inhale. Sufficiency vs. excess; animal nature vs. human. Peace vs. self-gratification.

We made a final tour of the Refuge today before heading home. The thing I will remember the longest is the sound of thousands of birds, set against a backdrop of silence. No engines; no people. Just the birds and the silence behind them.

1 comment:

  1. I am such a fan. I laughed out loud at the 2nd paragraph and at the "nuclear physicists." Josh