It was a bright, early-fall day on Hobart Bluff. Flocks of cedar waxwings, band-tailed pigeons and western bluebirds were busy stripping the berries from the blue elderberry shrubs in the openings. Bigleaf maples glowed yellow in the hollows and stood out against the backdrop of conifer green.

It was then I heard a soft, high-pitched yelp. Greater white-fronted geese! Others told me they had already heard or seen flocks flying high over the valley or spilling over the pass along I-5, but these geese were the first for me. Goose migration is spread out over a month or more, but there is concentrated push in the fourth week of September. It was Sept. 27. They were right on schedule.

I never saw the first flock that had attracted my attention, but then the next flock of nearly 100 passed over the Bluff headed east. East not south! The parade of flocks continued for much of the day. Each flock headed east. In all I noted more than 1,000 birds on their autumn pilgrimage that, for most, ends in the Central Valley of California. Some continue on into northern Mexico.

Most of these geese started in the tundra of Alaska. Some came even farther, from eastern Siberia. Many staged for migration in the river deltas of Alaska before making the jump south. The next stop for many was the bottomland at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers. They paused to feed and build up strength for the next leg of their journey, which brings them to us.

I have always assumed the flocks over the Rogue Valley continued south directly to the Central Valley, and some do. But on this day I learned that many come to the end of Bear Creek and then take a left turn to the marshes of Lower Klamath Lake and Tulelake. I watched as the flocks out over the valley from Hobart Bluff paused and milled about before reassembling and turning east. It was as if they were having a conversation discussing which route to take, and they probably were.

Geese, like cranes and other large relative long-lived birds that travel as family groups, rely on the older members of the group to show them the way. They follow landmarks and travel the route of their ancestors. On this day, elders were recalling the landmarks of a previous year. The younger birds learn the route and in turn pass the knowledge to future generations of geese.

Birds such as warblers, thrushes and other small birds travel alone. No parent shows them the way. They rely on inherited directions that include a heading and how long to fly. Internal sun compasses, star compasses, the earth’s magnetic field, and polarized light are some of the guides that assist these birds as they make solo journeys.

But the greater white-fronted geese follow road maps constructed over generations, and for the birds migrating over Hobart Bluff, the road map includes the Greensprings Highway that leads them to a layover in the marshes of the Klamath Basin.

October is a great time to take a day to visit the refuges in the Klamath Basin to enjoy the Arctic travelers. The fall weather is great, and in addition, the aspen are lighting up. And many, it turns out, took in a bit of a Shakespearian play on the way.

 

— Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.