snow geese, birding, pea island, outer banks

Valentine’s Day Snow Geese

Valentine’s Day dawned sunny but chilly this year. I had slept in, and was ready to enjoy a day of doing nothing. Checking my phone, I remembered that Valentine’s Day weekend was also the Great Backyard Bird Count, an annual event for birders all over the world. People were probably birding at that very moment.

I turned on BirdsEye, an app based on eBird that gives users access to real data on birds seen in their area. Over 100 birds had been seen near me, including…

I sat bolt upright: Snow Geese had been spotted.

snow geese, birding, pea island, outer banks
Photo by Erika Zambello

I have tried in vain to see Snow Geese, not once but twice in separate journeys to the coast. They are not uncommon birds in the winter; on the contrary, their flocks can number in the thousands. The problem? The flocks move in order to find food, and I had never managed to catch one.

Zooming in on the digital map, a sample point told me the Snow Geese had been recorded the day before in Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge in the Outer Banks. I had visited the refuge the year before on a trip with fellow Nic Schoolers, and it is completely full of amazing waterfowl and other bird species. I wasn’t surprised that the geese had touched down, but were they still there? Was now my chance?

Quickly dialing the refuge’s visitor center, I waited with bated breath for the woman at the end of the line to tell me if she could see them.

“Oh,” she said calmly, “We have thousands.” Thousands!

I hung up, unsure of what to do. It was already almost 10 a.m., and it would take four hours to make it to the refuge. There was no telling if the geese would still be there, and because of bad weather on Sunday we would probably have to turn around and drive all the way back after only a few hours on the coast. I desperately wanted to go, but knew it was not the most logical thing to do.

As it was Valentine’s Day, I decided the best thing to do was let my fiancé decide. After all, there was no way I wanted to drive all that way by myself, so if I was going to be crazy, he was going to have to be crazy with me. Sensing my indecision, he grinned at me, “Let’s go!”

snow geese, birding, pea island, outer banks, shell
Photo by Erika Zambello

That decided, we raced around for fifteen minutes getting snacks, camera equipment, and warm clothes together before racing out the door. I was actually nervous as we approached the Outer Banks; knots in my stomach nervous. I knew if we had driven all that way and didn’t see the Snow Geese I would feel both foolish and disappointed, neither of which I particularly enjoyed. On top of that I would have dragged Brian on a wild goose chase – literally.

We finally made it to Pea Island, and I craned my neck looking for the telltale white bodies and black wing tips of the Snow Geese in the sheltered waterfowl impoundment on one side of the dunes. Nothing. The knots in my stomach twisted. Jumping out of the car, I speed-walked up the ramp to the visitor center, practically bursting through the door. The same woman who had answered the phone was still there talking to another pair of birders, and all three looked up at me as I entered.

“Are the Snow Geese still here?” I asked breathlessly, trying to stay calm. If she said no, I really hoped I wouldn’t cry. That would just be embarrassing.

Instead, she and the birders said the magic words: “Yes,” and “I just saw some fly over.”

snow geese, outer banks, pea island, birding
Photo by Erika Zambello

PHEW. Okay, one hurdle cleared. Now I just had to find them. The staff member suggested we get in the car and continue a little farther down the road, where it bordered a mucky part of the impoundment and where the geese often hung out. I practically ran back to the car.

Full of new energy, I rolled down the window and peered out with my binoculars, relishing in the brisk breeze. There were birds everywhere, from common Mallards and American Black Ducks to the dainty American Avocets. Large, singleton white shapes meant Tundra Swans, but I was looking for a dense flock. Northern Pintails took to the air as we passed, and Northern Shovelers abounded, but I still didn’t see the geese. Until all of a sudden, there they were.

A flock of Snow Geese is near impossible to miss, white as they are. A large group of them was exactly where she said they would be, huddled together against a marshy bank. I leaped out of the car and fast tracked to the edge of the road lip, jumping up and down with glee. There they were, I had finally seen them! They were making a ton of noise, sounding exactly how you would expect geese to sound. I snapped a few photos, stared intently at them through my binoculars, and celebrated. Maybe birders are crazy, but sometimes it’s fun to be crazy!

snow geese, birding, pea island, outer banks
Photo by Erika Zambello

We watched the geese for several minutes, then set out to explore the rest of the refuge. We saw waterfowl by the visitor center, as well as a few species of heron, before heading across the road once more to the classic Outer Banks dunes and the beach. From there we watched a large group of Ring-billed Gulls feeding in the waves, tiny Sanderlings running as fast as their black legs could carry them along the sand, and giant Northern Gannets soaring gracefully above the water. It was magical.

All in all, we saw almost 50 bird species that day – not bad for a tally I could record as one of my Great Backyard Bird Count checklists. As we were heading back to the car, a sudden honking drew our eyes upward. Overhead, the flock of snow geese we had watched only two hours earlier was now flying over us, their white shapes creating perfect V’s against the blue sky. If we had come just a little later, we would have missed them once more.