It must be spring.
This morning the girls and I went for a walk. I drove us to a relative new subdivision of 5-10 acres lots and very few completed homes. It's quiet, with virtually no traffic, especially on a Sunday, so the girls can run or walk off leash with me. It's peaceful, and only five miles from home.
On this beautiful sunny yet still cold morning, the snow has receded off the dirt roads, making for easy walking. The girls' bellies are quickly covered in mud, for the dirt/gravel surface is moist from the recent snow melt. Yes, spring - "mud season" - has arrived. I mentally prepare myself for lots of toweling off of wet and dirty dog bellies and feet. The girls prefer snow - they trotted on it every chance they got this morning - but often you have to take what you can get. In this case, peace and quiet trumped snow, since walking on the snow covered road in the forest at home would have meant the incessant noise and smell of snowmobiles.
As we stroll, I admire the beauty of snow blanketed hillsides and frost-kissed pine trees while the girls sniff tracks in the snow banks. I hear something that at first sounds like a far-off dog barking. Surprised, as we never see dogs back here, I stop. The girls stop. We listen.
Honking! Canada geese! It's so loud, my initial thought is that they must be in a pond nearby, or along the banks of the creek that runs through this development.
But there is no pond, not that I'm aware of. Even if there were, it would be covered in snow.
Then, so high in the clear blue sky that I squint to see clearly, a huge flock of geese flies over, heading north.
Ah, spring is truly just around the corner.
This flock is huge, well over a hundred geese. Their V formation is fluid, members constantly changing position so that sometimes it appears more a blob than a V. I'm so absorbed with watching this spectacle that I completely ignore the girls for a couple of minutes. To my relief, they have taken seats in the snow beside the road about 20 feet away from me, watching me watch the geese. They're so patient with me.
Soon, another smaller flock flies over, in virtually the same slice of air space. This flock holds between 50-100 members and is in a tighter V formation. I watch fascinated as one bird, starting from the very back and outside of the V, slowly but steadily gains air toward the tip of the V until he overtakes the leader and becomes the new guide, the rest falling in neatly and precisely behind him. A perfect if noisy V.
I thought of my experiences with road cycling pace lines. Cyclists don't form a V - we stay single file - but the idea is the same. Everyone benefits from the leader breaking the flow of the air, essentially cutting a path through the air's resistance. The followers benefit by as much as 30% of effort depending on the speed of the line, the size of the leader, whether there's a headwind, etc. Any rider behind the leader instantly feels the benefit of drafting. You can ride the same pace for much longer without tiring.
So it is with these geese. I wonder, though, how it's decided who next takes the lead? How long a rest has the newest leader had, and how long must he or she lead before being spelled by the next fresh leader?
And imagine how hard the goose I observed overtaking the leader had worked - flying just a bit faster with lessened drafting benefits, from the back of the flock all the way to the front - and how tired he already was when he assumed lead position! Yet he became responsible for setting pace, providing direction and a wind break for the rest of the flock for...how long? Amazing.
With cyclists, the leader usually drops off the side and resumes the formation at the back of the line, eventually working back up to the front as each successive leader drops off. No rider has to come from the back and overtake the entire line to assume the lead as that goose did.
I wonder - do geese use that method as well, the leader falling all the way to the back? Was I observing an impatient goose who felt too well rested, or too dissatisfied with the slow pace of the current leader, and so decided to work hard to overcome the entire flock and assume the lead? I know cyclists like that; maybe there are geese with similar impatient personalities.
After another pause of several minutes a third flock of about 100 geese flew overhead. I'm beginning to think this is opening day of migration season! This third group followed in precisely the same flight path as the first two flocks.
And all the while, these flocks Honk! Honk! as they go, making quite a racket, undoubtedly communicating crucial flight instructions among themselves while heralding the onset of spring to those of us anchored to the earth by our lack of wings.