Sitting on a lake in the center of an eastern Montana plain, you would think their approach would be obvious: “Just keep your eye out for a giant flock of birds,” my mother advised. But it wasn’t that simple. The lake’s Blackfeet name is Sai Yai ksi Q Tsi tan Toh Pi, which translates to “when the geese come.” It captures the spirit of the experience—not the presence of the birds, but the anticipation of their arrival.
I went to Freezeout Lake—its colonial name—with my parents to watch the annual migration of the lesser snow goose (Chen caerulescens). The brochure provided by Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks told us that the lake, located due east of the Rocky Mountain divide, is the ideal resting spot for the geese. That’s because the surrounding plains are consistently rich in grains, and by late spring, the water has thawed.
It’s the perfect combo. At Freezeout, they have the chance to rest and replenish their fat reserves, making up for their previous flight and preparing themselves for once they arrive at their destination. And they have to be ready; the geese nest in the Arctic, where they may not eat for more than three weeks while protecting their incubating eggs.
The brochure explains that the ideal time to watch the geese is morning, when they fly to feed in the fields around the lake. We arrived in eastern Montana as the sun tucked behind the Rockies, setting over western Montana; we turned in early to make sure we’d be up in time. Come dawn, we watched the sun rise over eastern Montana, aware of our place in the world, waiting for the birds to come.
The morning was quiet. An occasional few geese came to rest along the waters, but nothing substantial happened for hours. Then, some specs appeared in the distance. They didn’t seem like much, I thought, until they were upon us—suddenly, clouds of white birds seemingly coalesced out of thin air, swooping, forming, re-forming, only to disappear just as swiftly into the horizon, a moment of total majesty. But only a moment. They were on their way again as quickly as they came.
The snow geese travel along the Pacific Flyway to Montana from their winter home in the Central Valley of California. They make the costly 600-mile journey to Montana in a single 15-hour flight. Most years, bird-savvy Californians migrate with them to watch the spectacle, but this year the parking lots were devoid of out-of-state plates. They were devoid of most in-state-plates, too. Those cars and RVs that were present parked as far away from each other as possible. Everyone was keeping proper social distance.
Watching thousands of geese gather in the skies, I was struck by the irony of the situation. Global and local human migration is at a standstill due to necessary efforts to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Meanwhile, the bird migration carried on, utterly unfazed by our new social reality. I was grateful to see something so beautiful, something so natural, continue; normalcy has never felt more relative.
What’s striking about bird migration is how salient it makes the interconnectivity of land, of ecosystems. It’s hard not to marvel at the distances traversed by the birds, at how only days before they could be near sunny Sacramento, how they could so easily traverse the divide between east and west. That ecosystem-level consciousness has never felt more visceral; it parallels the hyper-consciousness that has surrounded the coronavirus pandemic.
As the virus has spread throughout the world, we’ve been asking the same questions of the people around us, of our groceries, of our mail—questions like: Where did you come from? Where are you going? Is it safe there? We, as a society, have never been more aware of how connected we are, and never more aware of the risk that that entails. There is a fragility to that interconnectivity for the geese, too; it only takes one of those ecosystems along their migratory route suffering an environmental blow for the entire flock’s population to be hurt.
Everything feels fragile. As climate change accelerates, the geese’s migratory patterns are threatened. As coronavirus spreads, lives and livelihoods hang in the balance. Nothing feels given. And as I watched the geese float away from me, I couldn’t help but feel the weight of these changes, the gravity of the world we live in, that certain melancholy that only comes with letting go, with saying goodbye.
But I also felt hope. I reminded myself: migration is a cycle. Come October, the geese will head south for the winter, back to California. On their way, they will stop at Freezeout Lake to rest. No one can say if we will have contained the virus by then, if we will still be in quarantine, if there will be anyone able to travel to the lake to greet the birds on their return journey. So much is uncertain. But I have faith that the birds will make it back, and that Sai Yai ksi Q Tsi tan Toh Pi will be ready, regardless of what happens, for when the geese come.