Snow geese and cranes circle in wild profusion above Bernardo Wildlife Management Area, New Mexico. You can see a three minute video of this awesome experience on my youtube channel at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xMJkkzpwe0
Morning light was still mostly a dream but the air was already alive with sound when we pulled up to Bernardo Wildlife Management Area about 30 miles north of Socorro, New Mexico. Snow goose chatter mixed with the strident cries of greater sandhill cranes and as the sky transformed from gray to pink to orange, the clamor rose to a fever. Huge flocks of brilliant white geese tinged orange by the rising sun and long-legged gray cranes began to rise off the marshes in a roar of wings as they chased their calls into the sky.
They circled in a living dervish above. A group of about 10,000 geese landed in a field not 100 yards away. They mingled and called and there was a steady influx of newcomers as well as those that didn’t find the field to their liking and took to the sky again. A few thousand cranes stood nearby, but as if by decree, there was little mixing of the two species.
About sunset, the same scenario played out in reverse. This time, from a blind on shore, we watched cranes return to a roosting pond. The air boomed with their incessant calls and cranes flew overhead from every direction. Thousands of blackbirds performed an acrobatic sideshow, pulsing, twisting and morphing like a single organism as they decided on their evening’s roost and waves of snow geese winged in from every compass point.
I was reminded of another occasion while counting elk from a helicopter on Tex Creek WMA east of Idaho Falls. We flew over a ridge to find 1700 elk in the small valley below. When they moved en masse beneath us, it was like a live magic carpet flowing over the terrain. It is still one of the most awe-inspiring wildlife moments I have experienced.
As a photographer, I love getting up close to individual animals and capturing intimate portraits and personalities. As a naturalist though, nothing moves me more than being among massed wildlife. I don’t really care if it is fish, elk, birds or even insects, there is a power and an assurance there that life truly does find a way.
Many animals naturally congregate, especially during migration and the winter season. Sometimes shrinking habitat encourages them to funnel into areas set aside specifically for wildlife and artificially increases group size. The National Elk Refuge in Jackson is an example.
Huge concentrated groups bring their own set of problems like increased risk of disease transmission and stress. But as habitat continues to decline, “hyper habitats” will, of necessity, become more common and congregated wildlife will increasingly be the norm.
But there are advantages to vast groups too. The risk of being the victim selected by a predator decreases as numbers increase. Predators actually seem confused by the superabundance of prey as well.
You can find huge wildlife displays near Idaho Falls. In winter, go to Deer Parks WMU west of the Menan Buttes to see up to 2,000 swans or the National Elk Refuge at Jackson, Wyoming for thousands of elk. Check out Market Lake/Camas NWR/Mud Lake for snow geese as soon as the ice thaws in March.
My personal bucket list includes the lesser sandhill cranes at the Platte River, Nebraska, the wildebeest migration in Africa and the amazing plenty of summer in the Arctic.
Having spent a career as a wildlife biologist and witnessing firsthand the many threats to wildlife and wildlife habitat, I suppose that seeing teeming wildlife is like an antidote. We will never return to the days when millions of bison covered our prairies, but a huge pulse of life breathes hope that all is not lost.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
TAX DAY is coming! Here is a chance to do something good with a bit of your tax return and make the day less painful.
Donate part of your tax return to support wildlife in Idaho!
On the second page of the Idaho Individual Tax form 40 you have the opportunity to donate to the “Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund”.
Check-off this box on your next return or ask your tax preparer to mark the Nongame check-off on your behalf.
If you are not from Idaho, check with your own state wildlife agency about how you can help. Many states have a similar program.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Perfect Light Photo Supply
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho