Friday, January 31, 2014

Pete Seeger: Singing Truth to Power

What is the most powerful agent of social change? If we are to judge by the accomplishments of one particular man in a life well-lived, that tool would have to be song. Pete Seeger passed away this week, and it set me thinking about how we choose to spend the time we have been allotted on this planet.
I can't know the inner life and motives of Mr. Seeger, but everything I do know of his life is that he used it to make life better for others. He spent his early years helping workers unionize so they could stand united to improve working conditions. He was known for his pacifism even though he served during World War II, briefly as an airplane mechanic, but later as an entertainer for the soldiers. He was involved in the nascent civil rights movement as well.

He made a number of successful albums with the Weavers (Goodnight Irene, On Top of Old Smoky, Kisses Sweeter than Wine, and Wimoweh are familiar tunes), but was blacklisted for his communist leanings in the 1950s. He had to support himself by teaching music and singing on college campuses around the country.

He was witness to and participant in some of the greatest movements in American society, and his anthems gave voice to those who had never before had a voice. He was instrumental in bringing We Shall Overcome to the civil rights marches of the 1960s. In 1968 he truly sang truth to power by performing Waist Deep in the Big Muddy on the Smothers Brothers show (censored a year earlier), which was a subtle and yet not subtle jab at LBJ and his war in Vietnam. He was deeply involved in the environmental movement, and the fight against the death penalty. His voice was gentle but persuasive.

These are all the kinds of things that one can read in a Wikipedia article (just sayin'), but Seeger's passing affected me deeply on a personal level as well. Music touches our lives in many ways, and Seeger's words and songs played a huge part of mine. I was a child when JFK and MLK were murdered, and I was only dimly aware of the massive marches in Washington over the war and civil rights. I became a teenager when "Kumbaya" wasn't a joke around the campfire, and "We Shall Overcome" and "If I Had a Hammer" held solemn meaning. Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" was one of the first songs I ever learned on the guitar as I approached draft age at the end of the Vietnam War.
It didn't take me long to find one of my most treasured possessions when I was thinking about this entry. It's the little book pictured above, given to me by my parents decades ago. I learned American history partly through the music of my country, not the top 40 commercial dribble, but the words of real people in hard times and in hard places. Even today I subject my poor students (the geology students who join me in the field) to the music that is their real heritage. People may cringe when the guitar comes out, but the songs of the coal miners (Which Side Are You On? and Paradise) and fruit pickers (Deportee, Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) speak to the meaning of human existence and the need for social justice.

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except "deportees"?

(Woody Guthrie)

The passing of Pete Seeger and the heritage of his life really had me thinking. How dow we choose what we do with our lives? For many, there aren't many choices. Their lives are governed by the need for survival. But what about those who are gifted with a choice about the direction that their life will take? What drives the decisions they make? Money? Of course. Fame? Sometimes. But how often does that life choice involve altruism? Seeger ultimately led a comfortable life, but I sense that he was driven by a much more fundamental motivation. He wanted to make life better for those who had little or no hope.

I am a teacher, and sometimes I wonder what led me down this path. It would be foolish of me and a lie to say that the motives for my choice of career were altruistic. To be perfectly honest, it has been the most fun I can imagine in life. I have a good and secure job that is satisfying and often enjoyable. But my choices were influenced by my experiences in the environmental movement and exposure to the civil rights movement. I lived in a time when being a teacher or social worker was considered an honorable calling. I came of age when people realized that they did in fact have a voice and that they could make choices that could make their world a better place. Idealism was a real thing, and it drove people. As a teacher, I have the privilege of seeing the lives of my students change for the better, and I can have the satisfaction of knowing that I was part of the process. How many stock traders and investment bankers get to have that privilege?

Pete Seeger was an integral part of the movements towards a better society: acceptance of civil rights, the need for a healthy environment, and the need for peaceful resolutions to conflicts. He was a true American hero. He was most certainly one of mine. He stood up to those in power, facing down the House Un-American Activities Committee in a time when it was dangerous to do so. He had his career destroyed by those who benefited from the subjugation of workers and minorities. And yet he persisted, singing gentle songs of protest and encouragement to whomever would listen.  His banjo was one of the most dangerous weapons ever wielded in the defense of the poor and helpless (an inscription on his banjo said: "This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender"). He lived a good and long life. I can only hope that we can be inspired to do the same.

If you've made it this far, I hope you will enjoy this video of Pete singing one of my favorite songs. He wrote of the hope that is not always visible or felt, but it's always there.

Don't you know it's darkest
Before the dawn?
This thought keeps me
moving on

If we could heed these early warnings
The time is now quite early morning
Some say that humankind won't long endure
But what makes them feel
So dog-one sure?

I know that you who hear my singing
Make those freedom bells go ringing
And so we keep on while we live
Until we have no more to give

And when these fingers can strum no longer
And the old banjo to young ones stronger

Don't you know it's darkest
Before the dawn
This thought keeps me
moving on

Through all this world of joy and sorrow
We still can have
singing tomorrow

Thursday, January 30, 2014

0.42 Inches of Rain Last Night! California's Long Drought is Over! Wait a Minute...The Problem of Day to Day Perception

No, the drought is not over. More on that in a minute...
I've been waxing eloquently (I hope, but whatever) about how thrilling it has been to be teaching in our new Science Community Center on the campus of Modesto Junior College.  The geology labs were placed on the third floor, much to my delight. I've spent the last two decades of my career ensconced in a windowless office and laboratory.

It's really cruel and unusual punishment to leave a geologist/earth scientist in a dungeon. We need to see the planet in action. One of my greatest delights has been the ability to look out my lab windows and get instant confirmation about atmospheric conditions. And today was special. It rained.
I'm sure there are those who don't think rain is all that remarkable, but this rainstorm was. It has not rained in most of California since Dec. 7, and that was barely a sprinkle. The only significant storm was in November, and our total before yesterday was about 1.3 inches. It should be around 7. By those standards, last night's 0.45 inches was a huge thing. But unfortunately it's not.

A normal year in our area will see around 13 inches of rainfall. The worst ever, in 1913, was 4.3 inches. We may be on track to do worse, and this is after two previous dry years. We are in trouble if some big storms don't develop soon. And there is no real sign yet that anything like that is happening. A hugely resilient high pressure cell, driven by exceptionally warm northern Pacific water is driving our storms north into Alaska, and apparently sending masses of arctic air into the rest of the country.

It's really easy to experience a rainstorm and think "the drought is over". But rain happens during droughts, just not enough of it. There is a lesson here for the politicians who earlier this month were experiencing frigid conditions of the the Polar Vortex and declared that global warming was a scam and a hoax. It still gets cold in winter despite global warming. But not as cold, and not as often. We are in the midst of global climate change, and the effects are very real. Sea level is rising, glaciers are melting, spring is arriving earlier (trees are blooming all over Modesto right now in January), and there are crippling droughts and heat waves (we've had 70 degrees days for weeks now in our area). I've been pleased by polls that show that vast majorities of the American people accept the fact of global warming and climate change, even in the most conservative of states like Oklahoma. If only their chosen leaders were as smart as their constituents. We are not the frogs in the boiling water; our politicians are.

It was a thrill to walk on the roof of the building and take pictures of the Coast Ranges, which I haven't seen clearly in weeks because of the constant dust in the air. Our politicians in Washington feel the cold air and say global warming isn't happening. By that standard, the air was clear today and therefore we have beaten air pollution. Our children won't get asthma anymore. Hooray!

Where the Sierra Nevada Rises From the Sea: A Compilation of Posts

The Sierra Nevada of California is one of the great mountain ranges of the world. The soaring granite peaks, the deep glacial valleys, and the towering Sequoia trees represent some of the most beautiful sights to be seen anywhere on the planet. What is less known is that a portion of the Sierra Nevada is present elsewhere in the state. Around 30 million years ago the San Andreas fault system became active and sliced off a portion of the southern Sierra Nevada batholith and carried it northwest for several hundred miles. It now makes up a considerable portion of the Central California coastline, stretching from Big Sur on the south to Bodega Bay on the north. It is in my humble opinion one of the most beautiful and dynamic coastlines to be found anywhere on planet Earth.

I recently finished my latest blog series, and I present here a compilation of the fifteen entries in the series. If you missed any, here is the place to find them!
A sneak peak at the coming series. At this point I hadn't fully appreciated that I was going to be covering the entire Salinian Terrane, so I didn't mention the Sierra Nevada connection in the first post.
With the second post I hit upon the idea of the Sierra Nevada connection with my exploration of Limekiln State Park in the southern part of the Big Sur coast. It is a stunningly rugged stretch of coastal cliffs, and amazingly, the state of California almost shut down this beautiful place.
I punted on this one. I wrote this blog four months earlier about what may be the prettiest cove along the prettiest coast in the world. But the post fit well with the theme and scope of this series, so here it is: one of California's two tidal falls. And gigantic landslides.
A short distance inland from the coast we discover a gem of a state park, Pfeiffer Big Sur. The Sierra Nevada has the Sequoia trees, Big Sur has Coast Redwoods. And both the Sierra Nevada and Big Sur have huge wilderness areas. The wildlands around Big Sur are far less crowded.
Big Sur has some nice beaches, and not all of them are on the main highway. You have to be a bit of a sleuth to find Pfeiffer Beach, but it's worth the effort. And...garnet sand beaches!
One of the lesser known beach parks of the central California coast, Garrapata is a beautiful place that belies its horrendous name ("tick" beach). It has some of the nicest exposures of "Sierran" granite in the region.
Point Lobos was named for the seals and sea lions, not for terrestrial canines. It is another gem along the coast with unique exposures of conglomerates that accumulated in deep underwater canyons that rival Yosemite in their depths.
We finish our journey through Point Lobos and move north onto the Monterey Peninsular. Here it is trees that take up some of the geologic story. Monterey Pines grow naturally only in a few places, mainly on the Peninsula, but have become one of the most widely planted trees in the world. The Monterey Cypress is another unique species in the region.
We take a look at coastline of totally different character as we reach the Half Moon Bay region. There are prominent marine terraces that make for gentle scenery (and apparently great golf courses). There are some nice tidepools in the area, and during the right time of year, the Mavericks hit, the gigantic waves that bring surfers from around the world.
The San Andreas fault looms large in the history of the Central California coastline, but hasn't made an appearance on our journey until now. At Mussel Rock in Daly City, the fault trace moves offshore. The epicenter of the 1906 San Francisco may have been close by. And there is a famous folk song about the cookie-cutter houses on the high, unstable slopes...
Maybe you haven't heard that there is a big bridge that connects the city of San Francisco with the Marin Headlands and the rest of Northern California. It's not likely, but it's possible. There is some interesting geology going on underneath the bridge abutments.
The Marin Headlands expose rocks that were once part of the midocean ridge, the vast planet encircling mountain range that no mountain climber can ever hope to climb. The scenery on the Marin is majestic. And to invaders in World War II, the cliffs would have been deadly.
The Point Reyes Peninsula has wide sandy beaches, sand spits, a bay that may have been a landing for Sir Francis Drake, Tule Elk, and a lighthouse that has to put up with some really rotten weather.
If the Point Reyes Peninsular bears the brunt of violent Pacific Storms, the mountains of the peninsula shelter the lands to the east. Two bays along the San Andreas fault are peaceful and serene, which belies their violent origin.
We wrap up our exploration of the Sierra that rises from the sea with a look at Bodega Head, the site of a classic horror movie, and a horror story with a nuclear reactor as the main character. A reactor that was almost built on top of the San Andreas fault. It's also the northernmost exposure of the Salinian/Sierra Nevada rocks.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Rebuilding What Was Lost: Wildlife Refuges in California's Great Valley

Yeah, I live in one of the most boring geologic landscapes imaginable. California's Central Valley (or Great Valley when we are suffering from low self-esteem) is one of the flattest places in the country, and it's dry and dusty most of the year (and with the extreme drought this year, it's been dusty for more than a year). Our geology is basically clay mixed with sand. And some caliche layers. How much bleaker can it get?
Well, how about the trees? Tangled chaotic woodlands that hobbits and elves would avoid. Broken branches, barren of leaves, what is there to love here?

And once you leave the confines of the river floodplains there is not even enough water to support brush let alone trees. Flat grassland plains that reach to the horizon. Okay, it's true that the origin of the Great Valley is rooted in geological violence. The valley is the remnant of a gigantic forearc basin that lay between the trench of the great Cascadia subduction zone and the Sierra Nevada magmatic arc. Volcanic eruptions once coated the region in thick ash layers, and intense earthquakes 30 times more powerful than the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 happened tens of thousands of times over millions of years. But now. Nothingness. So, I ask who could love such a place?

Well, it's for the birds. For them, this bleak environment is survival. As I have mentioned in recent posts, 95% of the original natural environment of the Great Valley has been co-opted for agricultural and urban development. Millions upon millions of birds once used the valley as a wintering ground or for critical food-gathering during their migrations elsewhere.

This week I was continuing my for-the-first-time exploration of one of the most spectacular displays of nature by paying visits to the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. I'm still sort of stunned that this has been in my own backyard, but was so easy to overlook (I should add that I never learned to surf despite living in Santa Barbara at one time, and never learned to ski despite living next to Lake Tahoe for a time; I just sorta miss stuff). Like the San Luis and Merced refuges, The San Joaquin River NWR provides year-round habitat for the local native species (not just the birds), but in winter it is home for thousands upon thousands of Snow Geese, Ross's Geese, Aleutian Cackling Geese, Sandhill Cranes and many others.

The San Joaquin River NWR is notable for the role it has played in the recovery of the Aleutian Cackling Geese, a species that was down to around 300 individuals in 1963 (foxes had been introduced on the islands where they nested). Many of them winter at San Joaquin, and in recent years they have numbered in the tens of thousands. Thousands of Sandhill Cranes can also be found there.

There are two main ways to explore the San Joaquin River NWR. There is a wildlife viewing platform on Beckwith Road about 8 miles west of Modesto. It makes absolute sense that people wouldn't be allowed to tramp all over the fields where the birds eat and roost, so the platform offers a high viewing point, and when I was there, thousands of birds were visible. Mrs. Geotripper was kind enough to make her video available of thousands of birds swarming around the plowed corn crops that were grown to feed the birds. It may recall the incredible flight of the Snow Geese at the Merced NWRI posted the other day.

Our other exploration was much quieter and intimate. South of Highway 132 and off of River Road and Dairy Road, there is a recently constructed foot trail that winds through 4 miles of fields and river woodlands. The seasonal wetland had not been flooded yet (if it will be at all, given the drought), so the vast flocks of migratory birds weren't present. On the other hand, we had a chance to seek out the resident year-round species.
White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus)
The caretakers of the refuge are in the process of reconstructing and rebuilding the habitat that existed prior to settlement by Europeans in the 1800s. Floodplains and riparian woodlands are being replanted with tens of thousands of trees, and former wetlands are being flooded regularly in an effort to reproduce seasonal flooding that took place prior to agricultural development. The squarish property/refuge boundaries and canals belie a complete return to a natural environment, but it is a richer environment than existed before.
A Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia), perhaps?
We only had a short time to explore, covering only a mile of trail, and we didn't quite reach the section of the trail that parallels the San Joaquin River. A fair number of bird species were present, and a few allowed us to snap a few shots before they hopped into the underbrush.
Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus)
Being a rank amateur in the birding business, this was the first time I've ever identified a Hermit Thrush. Some people may have hundreds of birds on their life lists, but at least, I have an easier time adding new birds! A gentleman at the wildlife platform on Beckwith told us that dozens or hundreds of birders came out a few weeks back when someone spotted a rare Bunting species next to the platform. Some folks came from out-of-state for the chance to see it.
Egret in a tree at sunset

We didn't arrive until around four o'clock in the afternoon, so the sun was sinking fast as we made our way back to the parking lot walking atop the levee that protects some of the regional farmlands from flooding. A thicket of trees and brush kept us from seeing very far, but the chirping and hooting told us that numerous birds were hiding there.

One last Redwing Blackbird greeted us as we got back to the car and headed home. The San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge will be on our list for further exploration if the rains ever come and replenish the grasslands!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Birds of My Neighborhood: Geotripper Declares Cedar Waxwing Day!

One of my new year's resolutions which was actually not a resolution, and wasn't made in January, was to lose the extra pounds around the waist (there's a resolution no one ever thought of before...), so I have been walking, walking, walking for several months now. When the new camera landed in my hand, and there were fewer field trips and no geology, I started concentrating on photographing the local bird species in my neighborhood. That neighborhood includes some irrigation canals and cow pastures near my home, and a small "mini-wilderness" on my campus that includes a cat-tail ringed drainage pond and a small forest of mature oak trees and eucalyptus.
I have discovered much to my surprise (but of no surprise at all to my birder friends) that there is large diversity of species to be seen when one begins to look carefully. In my (freely admitted) ignorance, I dismissed all the small birds up in the trees as sparrows, but now that I am getting out on foot and looking carefully, those little black shapes are remarkably diverse. I've photographed more than thirty species so far, and I'm seeing new ones all the time.
One of my favorite discoveries early on were the Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum). They were out one morning a month or so ago, and then disappeared again, and I didn't see any for weeks. This morning they were out in force once more, and weren't very skittish about the guy standing in the middle of the road snapping pictures of them.
The waxwings nest in the northeastern part of the country and migrate into our area in the winter. They eat berries for the most part which actually protects them in an odd way. Cowbirds have been displacing lots of songbirds by laying eggs in the nests of the unsuspecting birds of other species. The young cowbirds hog all the food and sometimes kill the other chicks. But the cowbirds can't survive on fruit alone, so they don't tend to make it in waxwing nests.
The name of the bird comes from the waxy red secretions that are found on the secondaries. I managed to get several decent shots of the red feather tips. They maybe have something to do with courtship and mating (bling!).
Unlike many songbirds these days in North America, the Cedar Waxwings are doing pretty well. They are classed as a species of least concern, and there are an estimated 50 million plus of them living in the country. It's nice that we aren't destroying all of the interesting species that we share the planet with.

Okay, if you are worried that Geotripper isn't geological enough these days, don't! We will be headed out to Death Valley in a few weeks to take a look at the only place in California that is not suffering an exceptional drought (talk about the ultimate of ironies...). My new hobby of bird-watching prevents cabin fever!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Where the Sierra Nevada Rises From the Sea: Birds and a Hole in the Head at Bodega

Sea stacks at Bodega Head, with the Point Reyes peninsula in the distance
We are reaching the end of my series on the Central California coastline from Big Sur to Bodega Bay. I've been calling the series "Where the Sierra Nevada Rises From the Sea" for a very specific reason. Much of this section of the coast is composed of granitic rocks that formed in the subduction zone complex that was the origin of the Sierra Nevada batholith, the 400 mile long block of granite that is the backbone of California. The rocks, known as the Salinian Block (or Terrane), have been displaced hundreds of miles northwest by lateral motions along the San Andreas and related fault systems over the last 30 million years or so. Bodega Head is the northernmost exposure of these granitic rocks.

Bodega Head refers to the former island of granitic rock that is now connected to the mainland by a large area of active and stabilized sand dunes. Bodega Bay formed between the head and the mainland, and is nearly closed off on the south side by a sand spit along Doran Beach. A small marina is here and a modest fishing fleet works out of the harbor.
No, this isn't a bird attack at Bodega, but I sure thought about it while I was snapping this shot of Red-wing Blackbirds at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge near Los Banos in the Central Valley.

One may not know Bodega for the geology, but there are those who will remember Bodega Bay as the setting for a rather famous movie about our avian friends, The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock's classic. The original house where many scenes were shot is gone now, but the cypress grove where the house stood can be seen on the sand bar that connects the Head to the mainland. The land is owned today by the University of California, which runs a research facility at the site (occasional tours are offered).

Bodega Head has a horror story that may be the equal of an unexplained attack by our feathered companions. The rock sequence found east of the San Andreas fault is part of the Franciscan Complex, and these rocks are notorious for their slope-failure tendencies. Mass wasting is a way of life for anyone who chooses to build on it. Bodega Head on the other hand is composed of hard granitic rock. No slope failures would be expected there.
The Hole in the Head

So it was that in the 1950s that PG&E looked with great longing at the granite headland and decided that Bodega Head would be an ideal spot for a brand new nuclear power plant. The water they needed was there, there was solid ground to build on in contrast with the lousy slopes east of the fault in the Franciscan Complex. And not that they thought of things this way back then, but the site was fairly isolated from large population centers in case of bad accidents (which we all know NEVER happen with nuclear power plants).

And adjacent to the San Andreas fault! Its not like they didn't know it was there. In 1906, this part of the San Andreas shifted 15 feet or more. So they began digging a hole that would serve as the foundation for the power plant. As the plans and excavations progressed, local opposition began to grow, and ultimately the company somehow realized they were about to put a nuclear reactor practically on top of the San Andreas fault (subsidiary faults were discovered in the excavation pit; a geologist opined that “a worse foundation condition would be tough to envision.”). The pit became known as the "Hole in the Head".

So the nuclear power plant was never built, and Bodega Head remains as barren windswept ridge with beautiful cliffs composed of the northernmost exposures of the granitic rock of the Sierra Nevada. The Hole in the Head filled with seeping groundwater that now supports the local wildlife.

And so ends our little series of a part of the Sierra Nevada mountains that rise from the sea. I hope those of you who've followed it enjoyed the journey. I'll be putting up a compilation of the different posts in the series since it has been a rather off and on project over the last three months!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Birds of My Neighborhood: Geotripper Finds a Moment of Incredible Majesty Amid Environmental Devastation

A White-faced Ibis (Plegadis chihi) at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge
I wonder if you've noticed an additional aspect to my blogging in recent weeks. It wasn't a New Year's resolution because it started well before Christmas, but I realized that I needed to get rid of a few pounds, so I started walking once or twice a day. When a new and more powerful camera landed in my hands, I realized I could get some decent pictures of the numerous birds species I've been encountering during my explorations along the cow pastures and canal levees that are prevalent in my neighborhood.
A Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

So I've started blogging bird pictures on occasion, such as here, here, and here (click on the words for the link). Is there a geological link in observing birds? I've decided there is, especially in California's Great Valley. The science of the Earth is eclectic, drawing on many different disciplines, including chemistry, physics, astronomy, oceanography, meteorology, and on occasion, biology (think especially of paleontology). Sometimes there is a direct connection, such as when overgrazing or removal of beavers changes the pattern of stream erosion. And land-use issues are one of those areas where geologists can provide an important perspective.
Artificially flooded ancestral wetlands at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. These are reclaimed farmlands.

One of the most important land-use issues in the Great Valley involves agricultural and urban development and the conflict it causes with the natural habitat that existed prior to the arrival of European settlers. Some 95% of the valley has been plowed over, and all the major (and most of the minor) rivers have been dammed, diverted, or otherwise changed in the service of agriculture. In more recent years, urban growth has paved over prime agricultural acreage, creating a conflict within a conflict. The ramifications of these conflicts extend far beyond the Great Valley. They reach from the northernmost Arctic wastes to the equator, and into South America. The Great Valley, as it turns out, is one of the most critical stops on the migratory flyway for myriads of bird species. Our choices in the valley determine the health of ecosystems thousands of miles away. And most of the wetlands that made the valley such an important flyway stop were drained and plowed decades ago.
Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

That is why I am kind of thrilled to be writing today about the bird species of my home turf. I have driven by a couple of wildlife refuges for two decades without stopping (what can I say? I live next to the Sierra Nevada and the California Coast; they are a huge distraction). In the last few months, we've been stopping and having a look, and yesterday at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge I saw an incredible thing.
Great Egret (Ardea alba) at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

The first thing to realize is that the destruction of wetlands has been recognized for many decades, and for years some visionaries have worked to establish protected wetlands. In some cases they have reclaimed former agricultural acreage in a concerted effort to reconstruct some of the original environment that once characterized the valley. There is now a mosaic of wildlife refuges surrounding my community, lined up like islands in a sea of farms and ranches reaching from one end of the valley to the other (a 400 mile stretch). We can never fully recover what was, and will never see the spectacle of millions upon millions of birds descending on the valley floor, but we can see the tens of thousands of the survivors.
Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) at the Merced Refuge

That's what I saw yesterday. I'm admitting my own stupid ignorance here, but I had no idea that we had an American version of the Serengeti Plains a short way from my house. We've probably all seen television documentaries and footage of vast flocks of birds flying and flocking, but I'd never seen such a thing for myself. We headed out to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge because we'd heard they had flooded the wetlands, and that some Sandhill Cranes might be seen. We saw some cranes, but that's not what I found stunning. It was the Ross's (or maybe Snow) Geese.
Ross's Geese (Chen rossii) and Coots at the Merced Refuge

The Ross's Geese spend their summers in the far northern islands of Canada, and spend their winters in California. As we drove the loop road through the refuge, we could see vast flocks off in the distance, and from more than a mile away we could hear their noise. As we drew closer, we could see that there were thousands of them, maybe tens of thousands (some sources mention 60,000 geese). They were chattering and honking, and it was almost deafening. Then the extraordinary thing happened. There was a hush that made us look up, and then a sound like a jet engine began to roar. The ground actually seemed to tremble. Every single one of the ten thousand or so geese was taking flight at once. In less than 20 seconds they were all airborne. I have no idea what set them off, but it was like nothing I've ever seen in my life.
Ross's Geese taking flight

I got a good video of the event, but the compression process during uploading removes the high definition and makes it hard to easily visualize what was happening. I can only say to try and imagine what this piddly movie is showing, and then someday give yourself the opportunity to visit the wildlife refuge during the winter and see it happening for yourself. It's free!

Try something new each day. Your life will be richer for it!