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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Alan Liere: In Alberta, geese of all varieties put on a show

A tornado of geese in Alberta earlier this month.  (Alan Liere)
By Alan Liere The Spokesman-Review

Each fall, a friend and I drive 13 hours north to our favorite waterfowl destination in Alberta, Canada. Certainly, we anticipate good goose shooting in the week we’re there, but the main reason we go is to spend time with our Canadian friends, and to see “The Show.”

Oh, we love to kick back after a hunt, eat thick toast smeared with Cheez Whiz at the Co-Op and sympathize with the locals over the price of grain and beef. We love, too, to trade political jabs and complain about the exchange rate and the coffee, and then to soak up the afternoon sun on our farmer-friend Greg’s front deck overlooking a 5-acre pond jammed with waterfowl we don’t even hunt. But it’s the goose migration – “The Show” – that’s just as important to us.

White-fronts. Canadas. Ross’s. Snows. In a normal year, there will be wave after undulating wave of geese in the air. Some will be flying relatively low back to water. Some are migrators, winging high and fast toward unknown promises further south.

I have shot precious few snow geese on these trips and can’t say I have ever called a flock into the decoys, but I love to hear them talk. Snow geese are noisy, and from my layout blind, their call is a loud nasal “whouk.” Their smaller cousin, the Ross’s goose, has a call more throaty – a weak “kek, kek or ke-gak, ke-gak.”

From Greg’s front porch, both birds’ calls seem rather high-pitched – almost scolding – and I am mesmerized by their “now you see us, now you don’t” flight. An almost pure white bird in a sunny blue sky presents glimmers and flashes rather than the sustained darkness of a flock of white-fronts or lesser Canadas. Alberta game regulations say I can shoot more snow geese a day than I’d ever want to pluck, but that is a laugh. I am convinced the best way to hunt snow geese is to locate a flock in the evening, put them to bed, and then set up a couple sections away the next morning; it seems they never come back to the same field the way a self-respecting Canada honker will.

The call of a Canada honker is generally described as a “honk” or a “ha-ronk.” There are numerous subspecies of Canada geese, however, and if they are in the air their calls range from a high, rapid cackle in the small species to the deep, musical “honk-a-lonk” of the large species.

If you’re in a blind and the honkers are set and coming in feet down, you’ll hear grunts and growls and the “tunka-tunka-tunka-tunka” of a contented bird. I think if Canada geese kept quiet they’d catch me out of the blind much more frequently than they do. Canadas can’t seem to help announcing their presence.

I love the happy sound of white-front geese best of all. Also called “specklebellies, specks,” or “barred geese,” their call is a high-pitched, almost a maniacal laugh or yelp consisting of only two or three flute-like notes. It is all but impossible to duplicate their cry on paper, but I have seen some pretty valiant attempts by other writers. “Kah-lah-aloook” gets my vote, but at times, there is also a loud, high, “wah-wah-wah.” In any event, the fact they often travel in flocks of 200 or more makes a fly-over darn impressive. Because they are so good on the table, I will often pass up a “sure thing” shot at a Canada honker if I hear specks coming toward me somewhere in the distance. Sometimes, I won’t even shoot when specks are committed to the decoys because, theirs is an almost joyous descent, with birds literally turning over and flying upside down, emptying their wings of air to hasten their trip to earth. Spectacular!

This season, the goose migration through Alberta was late, and many of the ponds were dry, forcing the birds to congregate in the long coulee that dissected the farmland we hunted. Only because of our contacts and their networking and familiarity with the land were Mike and I able to bag a few birds, because when they came, they came en masse, many times all to the same field. Mostly, we did a lot of scouting and a lot of observing, and both of us admitted that whether we shot a bird or not didn’t make much difference. We still were able to marvel when thousands of birds lifted at once from the coulee, creating a din that made conversation all but impossible.

On our last afternoon in Alberta, the weather changed, and that night, a cold wind pushed the rain, stripping the remaining golden leaves from the cottonwood tree outside my window. Lying in bed, I listened to a lilting, hysterical, laughing whistle: migrating white-fronts and snows, lots of them, coming in high with a north wind. It went on for hours. In the morning, the coulee would be packed with geese. I imagined Mike and I would be staying another day – not to shoot, but to experience The Show.