Two travelers join millions of migrating birds for a mysterious and magnificent journey—the greatest show in the sky.
From the passenger seat of our rental car, my wife tries to photograph waterfowl in Idaho’s Camas National Wildlife Refuge, an expanse of fields and marshland north of Idaho Falls. Two days into a grand birding adventure, we’ve already seen 20 avian species, including horned larks, American avocets, trumpeter swans, and sandhill cranes, seven of which are hang-gliding alongside us on wings almost six feet across.
We’re exploring the wild wonders of fall along the Pacific Flyway, one of the western hemisphere’s four broad bird-migration corridors. Known for its wading shorebirds and mix of mountain, high desert, and coastal routes, the 350-species flyway stretches from breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska to winter retreats as distant as Patagonia at the tip of South America.
To see the flyway’s famously huge gatherings of ducks, geese, swans, and shorebirds—and catch stragglers from the September songbird migration—we’re embarking on a six-state, 2,000-mile road trip in late October. Starting at Freezeout Lake, near Great Falls, Mont., we’ll stop at Yellowstone National Park, the Great Salt Lake, the two-state Klamath Basin, and California’s Sacramento Valley, ending our journey at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
Before taking off, I had an odd thought: What if, instead of traveling as one of the country’s record 48 million birdwatchers, I were making the trip as a bird or a human with the bird’s amazing gifts?
To be sure, I’d freak out airport security: I would be sporting tangerine-size eyeballs (bird scale) to read stars, landscapes, and the sun’s polarized light for navigation; I’d have magnetic crystals in my skull to drive internal compasses and detect variations in the earth’s magnetic field; and I’d bulge out of my feathered bodysuit, having doubled my weight in the past few weeks by gorging to fuel up for the journey. Highly antsy with what’s called migratory restlessness—my heart beating 500 times a minute—I’d rush past the gape-jawed gate agent and take off to run (since humans can’t fly) nonstop, at the speed of Olympic gold-medal sprinter Usain Bolt.
Of course, I’m not a bird and I thump back down into reality in Great Falls, where the first of the trip’s surprises rolls off the baggage carousel: gun boxes. And at the car rental desk, I hear, “If you bring it back muddy, bloody, or gutty, I’m charging you for cleaning.” It’s the agent talking with the camouflage-clad man ahead of me regarding the pickup truck he’s about to drive off the lot. Ah yes. Fall is hunting season.
At dawn the next morning, we’re among the few visitors at Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area not bearing arms. That will be the case at many of the stopovers we visit. “Hunters pay the bills,” says retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Mike Schwitters as he drives us around the seven-mile-long lake, counting waterfowl (mostly tundra swans) and hunters’ vehicles for the Montana wildlife service. Cheerful and bespectacled, with a special bird habitat plate on his pickup, the 72-year-old Schwitters has agreed to show us around this state-run refuge that attracts up to 500,000 migrating snow geese each year.
Schwitters has seen about 800 of the more than 900 bird species ever spotted in North America, including 200—many of them rarely sighted—in the Aleutian Islands, where he worked spring and fall at an air force installation to prevent collisions between jets and Pacific Flyway geese. “It’s a treasure hunt,” he says with a smile when asked why he adores birding. “Things that fly fascinate me.”
Fewer than 1,000 waterfowl happen to be at Freezeout this particular morning (warm weather in Canada has slowed the migration), but other winged visitors fill the gap. Colorful ring-necked pheasants scurry across a field. One of the drab, hard-to-identify sort that birders lump together as LBJs, or Little Brown Jobs, flits into the tall grass. A bald eagle tries to snatch a gadwall off the lake.
“That one has the GISS of a red-tailed hawk,” Schwitters says, as a raptor appears high in the sky. GISS means “general impression of size and shape.” It becomes my new standard for observing and my buzzword for the trip.
Schwitters calls Freezeout “a motel with a pool and a good restaurant” for exhausted ducks and geese, which devour leftover grain from nearby fields. The birds can thank a beer brewery; thousands of acres of malting barley planted around the lake in recent decades have caused Freezeout’s waterfowl numbers to skyrocket.
Farming has not always been kind to birds. As human population has soared, cropland expansion has helped wipe out all kinds of migratory habitats, including 95 percent of the wetlands in California’s Central Valley, where most of the Freezeout waterfowl are heading for the winter.
“Agriculture has been the largest agent of landscape change in North America,” says ornithologist Jeffrey Wells, director of science and policy for the Boreal Songbird Initiative, which seeks to protect endangered breeding grounds. “Massive amounts of money are now being spent to try to restore a small portion of wetlands and grasslands that were drained or plowed for farming.”
Indeed, most of the wetlands we visit are surrounded by farmland and either partly or entirely man-made. These restored lands form a precarious support system that can be denied water when farms or cities need it more. “There’s an old saying that applies,” says Rich Stallcup, the naturalist for PRBO Conservation Science. “Wildlife bats last.”
As we move on from Freezeout toward northern Wyoming, I try to balance the sobering challenges migrants face with the joy of great sightings. In snowy Yellowstone, near the steaming Artist Paint Pots, I spy a gray-and-black Clark’s nutcracker. Named for the explorer of Lewis and Clark fame, the bird is known for planting forests by ripping whitebark pine cones apart with its Swiss Army knife of a bill, burying seeds in the ground for later. The nutcracker relocates to a lower elevation each autumn rather than flying south, just one example of how migration varies among species along the flyway.
We head southwest to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah, where we drive the gravel-road birding trail. With distant mountain vistas on all sides, larger flocks of redheads, American coots, and red-winged blackbirds come into view. We also spot our first western grebes, elegant, swan-necked birds that dive for food and, in breeding season, literally run across the surface of the water in an astounding courtship dance. At dusk, a corner of sky over the Great Basin fills with incoming waterfowl.
In Idaho’s Curlew National Grassland, the first ferruginous hawk I’ve ever seen flies over the car, and I ponder the billions of birds migrating world-wide each autumn. They soldier on through extreme weather. Some fly day and night and attempt do-or-drown crossings of seas and gulfs. One Pacific Flyway traveler, the black brant goose, completes a 3,400-mile open-water migration from the Aleutians to Baja California in as little as 54 hours.
In Boise, at the World Center for Birds of Prey, we meet Potter, a rescued 18-inch-tall northern harrier who is one of 26 resident birds brought out to educate visitors. Unlike the area’s Swainson’s hawks, which survive on insects and must migrate to South America to find a sufficient winter supply, local harriers have to migrate only short distances (if at all) to find food. They mostly eat small animals, which they catch aided by their acute hearing, just as owls do.
As we traverse eastern Oregon’s high desert to the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, encompassing six refuges spread across the border of Oregon and California, the list for the trip tops 50 species, including black phoebes, western scrub jays, mountain bluebirds, and yellow-rumped warblers. We still don’t see many birders—not even using the spotting scope the rangers lend us at Lower Klamath, the first national wildlife refuge set up specifically for waterfowl, inaugurated by Teddy Roosevelt in 1908. A new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiative aims to make the Klamath Basin attractive as a birding destination by letting visitors borrow scopes, binoculars, books, and seasonal checklists.
Attractive, indeed. About 80 percent of Pacific Flyway ducks and geese make a stop here. At Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, we watch a thunderous liftoff of thousands of snow geese and whitefronted geese. Farther south at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, we see hundreds of thousands of waterfowl and more of these stupendous mass takeoffs. “It’s a life experience,” says Visitor Services Specialist Lora Haller.
The flyway offers bird therapy even in unlikely places. An initially dodgy-looking trail in downtown Klamath Falls, Ore., reveals 15 species, including belted kingfishers and an American white pelican resting along the Link River. The Vic Fazio Yolo Wildlife Area, set below I-80 west of Sacramento, provides prime viewing for lovely little black-necked stilts, snowy egrets, greater yellowlegs, and myriad other birds wading in the restored wetlands.
At the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, we offer a small thank-you. We buy a $15 federal duck stamp, the hunting permit invented during the Depression by bird-loving cartoonist Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling. Since 1934, sales of the stamp to hunters and nonhunters alike have raised $750 million to protect 5.3 million acres of waterfowl habitat.
In a visit to the PRBO Conservation Science field station in Bolinas, Calif., we learn how birds are banded to track their migration. Finally we arrive at our last stop: Don Edwards, the country’s first urban national wildlife refuge, where 15,100 acres of former industrial salt ponds on south San Francisco Bay are being transformed into a waterbird magnet.
A stately great blue heron poses in front of the Dumbarton Bridge thrumming with traffic. German tourists help us identify our very first willet. We look in vain for what Volunteer Coordinator Paul Mueller calls an “escapee pink flamingo” that may have flown away from a zoo, and for a California clapper rail, an endangered species.
Reading the historical displays here and at other sanctuaries, we recoil at the countless tales of bird slaughter and habitat loss. But we take heart knowing that good people have taken action, from Teddy Roosevelt and the Depression-era founders of the wetlands-preservation (and hunter-driven) organization Ducks Unlimited to the everyday avian heroes we encountered along our trip. Those rangers, volunteers, and researchers are all helping protect birds in hopes that more people like us will venture out and discover the marvels of the Pacific Flyway.
Photography by David Collier  (birders at Vic Fazio; yellow-headed blackbird); courtesy of Wikipedia (redhead by Kevin Bercaw; great blue heron); courtesy of Wikipedia/Carl Mueller (peregrine falcon)
This article was first published in September 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.