Updated: Apr 13
You can just imagine the "Price is Right" loser sound effect after that title. We understand. Follow us, as we gather our composure after laughing too hard at our ridiculous title...
During winter 2019, the Flocking Around crew spent a Sunday at Table Mountain WHMA in Wyoming. Thanks to previous visits to Table Mountain, we knew there was likely to be large numbers of waterfowl and cranes. We could not have been more correct.
An early departure is always required for a visit to Table Mountain. The area is almost 3 hours from the flocking roost in central Wyoming, and if you want to see your first flock of geese before lunch, you had better get a move on. We packed our car with optics, snacks, and rain gear, then prepared to leave. If you were curious what kind of gear we carry, here is our list:
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Celestron Trailseeker ED 10x42 Nockies (highly affordable binoculars; great color and lowlight performance)
Maven C1 10x42 Nockies (upgraded pair of binoculars for those dimly lit days)
Celestron Regal M2 100 ED Spotting Scope (highly affordable scope that competes with the top brands)
Manfrotto 055X Tripod (heavy, sturdy tripod that is perfect for Wyoming wind)
Canon Powershot SX70 (great intro/point-and-shoot camera for birders)
This as a collective seems like an expensive set of equipment. However, we accumulated these over the course of 7 years. Start slow, find the gear you love, and build up!
Still with us? Great. I would have gotten lost in all those wonderful links to birdwatching gear... (you can roll your eyes again). Back to the story!
While cruising south on I-25, we always like to keep our eyes open for eagle nests. The Golden Eagle nest northeast of Douglas is active, and the Bald Eagles that lost their nest in a storm two years ago have rebuilt! Hooray! If you pass through Douglas, they are on the north side of the bridge crossing the North Platte. They sure are hard to miss.
Normally, we'd make a stop at Guernsey State Park, but the area seemed devoid of most birdlife. As April creeps closer, Guernsey SP is THE place to be to see Turkey Vulture migration. I've seen kettles numbering well over 300 roosting in the canyon there. This day, we kept moving.
We experienced no flocks of ducks or geese flying overhead from Douglas to Yoder. Three hours and not a single flock of geese or cranes. I was beginning to sweat. The turn onto Rd 161 has often been my saving place. I have seen large numbers of geese at this corner section. However, my favorite spot was bird-dry. It is like bone-dry but lacking on birds.
To say I was nervous is an understatement. To spend 6+ hours in a car and not see a target is a wasted day in my opinion. All was not lost, but it sure was making my rear-end sore from sitting in a car that long. Suddenly, fortune began to shine her light down upon us! Where 161 turns north, I saw dark blotches littering the sky! Geese! Geese! More importantly, I saw shimmering diamonds of hope and joy. The Snows were present and accounted for! Huzaah! With the pressure having been washed off my back, I was able to smile once again. I knew we'd find more geese.
Upon arrival at Table Mountain, there were Prairie Dog shooters from Michigan at the first entry. Luckily, the first pond was still frozen, so no birds were likely to be disturbed by their presence. Hopefully, they collected their carcasses when they finished. As we approached the second entrance to Table Mountain, we saw a swirling darken much of the sky, as close to 2000 Sandhill Cranes descended upon us and the wonderful habitat below. We rolled our windows down so we could hear the truly marvelous sound of what could only be described as a hurricrane.
The main road on the southern border of Table Mountain was impassible. When I say impassible, I mean a man with a large 4x4 truck parked on the main road, because he could not get his truck down it. We were in a Ford Focus. Time to hoof it. Walking at breakneck speeds, we made short work of the outer road. Why were we walking so fast and not enjoying the day? We saw our main quarry. A flock of white geese so large, it made the water they floated on disappear. When they flushed from an eagle or hunter, they moved like a living cloud. Unparalleled in synchronicity and beauty. Okay, yes, it is a massive flock of noisy, pooping geese. I'm being slightly hyperbolic because it was a magical moment.
The geese were still a significant distance from the main entry point. Too far to ID, and too far for photographs. We were going to have to walk the embankments to get closer. Unfortunately, there was a hunter hiding on one of the embankments hoping to bag some of these geese. We waited patiently, not wanting to disturb the hunter nor the geese. After about 10 minutes, the hunter decided he had enough. He began his slow walk back towards the entry point. As he approached, we crossed the fence toward the geese. He was a very friendly man and told us that while he bagged no geese on that day, the bird watching had been amazing. Birders come in many forms and lines of clothing. (A few days after this post, we received inquiries from wildlife officials. Apparently, this man was hunting outside of Snow Goose season. Yikes.)
We made our way out to the flock. The embankments only got us within a half-mile of the majority of birds, so we got as close as possible, then waited. The eagles had been circling back and forth, and we only needed one to flush the group. We were not disappointed. In a rush of feathers, wings, water, bills, feet, and honks, the flock erupted into the sky. The rush of the wind from their wings and the sound of a flock moving in unison created what we will forever describe as a tornadsnow.
There you have it. A trip to Goshen County on the right day in late winter and/or early spring can produce quite the experience. I truly hope you can one day experience a hurricrane and tornadsnow.
If you have ever seen a very small crane in Wyoming, you may have seen a Lesser Sandhill Crane! You can read more about identifying Sandhill Crane subspecies here! Also, learn more identification tips on Cackling Goose vs Canada Goose by reading our blog post on the two separate species.
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eBird Checklist: Hutchinson, Z. 2019. eBird Checklist: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S54197145. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York. Available: http://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: March 25, 2019).