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Thanksgiving Tradition: Snow Geese Migration In Vermont

Nov 28, 2013
Originally published on November 28, 2013 12:34 pm

We revisit Here & Now host Robin Young’s trip with her now-late uncle, Lachlan Maclachlan Field, to see the migrating snow geese at the Dead Creek Refuge in Addison, Vermont.

Less than a decade ago, visitors were awed by fields and skies filled with as many as 20,000 geese at a time. But now, because of changing migration patterns, the geese in the area number just a few thousand.

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And now, a Thanksgiving tradition on the program: Robin Young's trip to Vermont to see the snow geese with her uncle Lachlan Maclachlan Field.


The year was 2001. It turned out that Uncle Lach, like the migrating geese, was slowly leaving us. He was 88, had just began a bout with Alzheimer's. He would pass away in 2004 at 91. Over the years, we've learned that geese mate for life, travel as families, that when one becomes sick, two drop out of formation to stay with it until it heals or dies. People always ask: Will we hear Uncle Lach again this year? Some of you can repeat lines along with him. And here again is the trip I'm so thankful I made.

The snow geese, thousands of them, touch down every fall at a refuge called Dead Creek. My Uncle Lach had taken me there once to see the brown Canadian geese, but I wanted to see the snows. My cousin Peggy kept writing this fall, telling me that the snows had arrived. Finally, I got the subtext of her postcards: The leaves were falling. The snow geese would soon be leaving. And at 88, it's not like my uncle is going to wait around forever either. So up to Vermont we went.


YOUNG: Uncle Lach?




FIELD: How are you?

YOUNG: We should go see the gees while we can.

FIELD: Yeah. OK, I'll go with you.

YOUNG: My Uncle, Lachlan Maclachlan Field, looms large in my branch of the family. We were from the suburbs of New York. He collected arrowheads and with his son carve duck decoys. He and my late Aunt Martha spent years in the war, then came to Middlebury where he taught high school art. To us, he was General Patton meets Norman Rockwell.

FIELD: I can't run far anymore. I haven't, I haven't been out there - you're the first person I've seen in this house in two weeks.


FIELD: That's true.

YOUNG: Well, hardly. It's just that at 88, Uncle Lach recently had to give up cross country skiing. He's not painting as much.

FIELD: Sit around and vegetate.


YOUNG: Not today. We're going to geese.


FIELD: (Unintelligible)


FIELD: What, you paid someone to steal it?

YOUNG: When was the last time you heard an alarm up here?

FIELD: I got it.

YOUNG: So off to Dead Creek, about a 20-minute drive from Middlebury. And on the way, we would do what relatives do this time of year, whether convening to go see a bird or to eat one. We just talked.

Ah, so, have you been following all the news? You know, all the fighting in Afghanistan and...

FIELD: Yeah. Well, I'm going to tell you something. In my age, I didn't - all I could remember is fighting. It's been going on for years. To slow down, you got to go across the traffic and you go straight.

YOUNG: Didn't you fight in the Battle of the Bulge?

FIELD: Well, yeah. Me and several hundreds of thousands of other people.

YOUNG: Yeah. I didn't think you were there by yourself.

FIELD: Yeah. (Unintelligible) I held them off. Yeah, that was a sort of cold weather, a lot of snow.

YOUNG: Tell me about Dead Creek. I've been trying to explain it, that it's sort of a resting place where the migratory birds...

FIELD: Yeah. It's right on the big firewood from the north and south. So they flock in there. I've seen geese that you wouldn't believe. But no guarantee this time they were there.

YOUNG: I know.

LACHLAN MACLACHLAN FIELD: This weather is getting colder now, but I'm hanging around.

YOUNG: I know.

FIELD: They go through sometimes and - by the thousands. I saw - one day I walked on the backyard and snow geese are going by. They were low. Very, very, very low. And on the way back on the house, they were flying single file. And then I picture a line of them was probably three football fields length.

YOUNG: Really?

FIELD: And so I got big - I watched this big chain going up on the top of trees and down and down and down. Never have seen in a century. Sometimes you can hear them coming all hawking away. (Makes noise).


FIELD: Sounds something like that, you ought to know.

YOUNG: They do. OK, Uncle Lach, we just saw a sign Dead Creek Wildlife Management. And the good news is I see some cars up ahead. I see the...

FIELD: A lot of times, geese get out in there. So...


FIELD: There they go. You see them?

YOUNG: Yup, yup, yup.

FIELD: (Makes noise)


YOUNG: All right. Now, we're...

FIELD: Look at the cars here.

YOUNG: I know.

FIELD: Well, that means a lot of geese. Look at them out there. See them?

YOUNG: Yup, yup. Let's go up there. Oh, there's geese. At Dead Creek, we met up with my cousins and Bryan Pfeiffer, a member of the Audubon Society who runs several bird tours.

BRYAN PFEIFFER: We're seeing regularly Ross's goose. It's a small version of a snow goose. And people think that we're nuts, you know, because we come out here and we look for one Ross's goose. But it's also...

FIELD: Give me the name and say it again.

PFEIFFER: Ross's, R-O-S-S...

FIELD: Ross's. OK.

PFEIFFER: R-O-S-S, apostrophe S. Ross's goose.

FIELD: Yeah. OK. Ross's goose.

YOUNG: Yeah.

FIELD: Smaller.

PFEIFFER: They're out here.

FIELD: Yeah, I want to see one now.

PFEIFFER: Yeah, so do I.



YOUNG: Hey. Well, look. I'm looking up there and way - a much higher than the others we've seen. There's a V forming. Are they leaving?

PFEIFFER: Also, if you look right over the parking lot here, there's a bird that's - that's a red-tailed hawk covering. But, yes, those birds are leaving. And notice the V formation?

YOUNG: Yeah.

PFEIFFER: You see how one arm of the V is longer than the other?

YOUNG: Yeah.

PFEIFFER: They've actually figured it out why that is.


PFEIFFER: The longer arm has more geese in it.


YOUNG: Oh my gosh. Hundreds, thousands of them. Uncle Lach, look. Thousands of...

FIELD: Oh, the ground.


FIELD: And there's something...

YOUNG: Here they come.


FIELD: Wow. (Unintelligible)

YOUNG: I will never forget the look on my uncle's face. He'd put on my cousin's cape because of the cold. And when the birds rose up, probably because of that hawk, so did he. It was as if the ground where the snow geese where had been covered with snow and then someone scooped it all up and threw it in the air like confetti.


PFEIFFER: One great fall experience. And you had it. I mean, (unintelligible) now flew over your heads, you know? And that just - I live for that every fall.

FIELD: I'm glad that I saw the snow geese one time going by down through Cornwall.


FIELD: I looked out back and it was nothing but a thin white line...


FIELD: far as you can see and tree high, tree heights, as far south...



FIELD: We're getting frozen.


PFEIFFER: That's right. Let's go.

YOUNG: What did you think?

FIELD: Think about what?

YOUNG: The geese.

FIELD: Oh, pretty nice. I've seen millions of them, you know?

YOUNG: I know you have. But I saw the look on your face when that group lifted up.

FIELD: Oh, it was tremendous, isn't it?

YOUNG: Yeah.

FIELD: Yeah. With weather like this, they'll be taken off out of here. They'd be gone.

YOUNG: Yeah.

FIELD: When they go, it's like (unintelligible) turning the light off. They're gone.

YOUNG: Yeah. OK. Will you want to get something to eat?

FIELD: Want to get something to eat?

YOUNG: Yeah.

FIELD: Not particularly. Why? Are you?


YOUNG: Yes, I do.


YOUNG: A return visit to the snow geese of Vermont with my late uncle, Lachlan Maclachlan Field, who passed away in 2004 at the age of 91. I think of him often, especially when I see a line of geese stretched across the sky.

FIELD: There's one long (unintelligible). When they go, it's like (unintelligible) turning the light off. They're gone.


CHAKRABARTI: And for Robin, Jeremy Hobson and the entire HERE AND NOW crew, we wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.