Millions of people the world over identify themselves as bird-watchers. I certainly enjoyed bird-watching while on board the steel-hulled boat we rented to cruise the lakes and canals of Friesland in the north of the Netherlands. Friesland and the neighboring area of Overijssel are known for their wetlands and for many species of geese that overwinter there. There are eight varieties known to the area, but the family I spotted is not among them. No, I spotted a mated pair of Canada geese and their eleven fuzzy goslings.
As I settled into my morning mug of hot tea on the flybridge of our boat, I watched the frustrated parent geese take turns hopping from the water up to the top of the breakwater, a distance of about two-thirds of a meter (about 2 ft), obviously trying to teach the goslings how to exit the lake. Once on the wooden beam, a parent goose would honk as if to say, “You see, just do it like that.” Eleven earnest babies were paddling frantically, trying to do as they were instructed, but to no avail. “They are too tiny today,” I mused, “But next week one of them may shock the whole family by actually hopping out.”
This feathered brood is no casual family unit. In fact, they are apt to stay together for at least a year until they return together to this breeding ground, where the young will seek to mate and start their own families. Faithful to the end, Canada geese are known to mate for life and can live as long as thirty years.
Since I am also from North America, this avian family looked very familiar to me. However, seeing them in Europe was disorienting, so I surmised it must be a Scandinavian branch of the Canada goose family. My research proved I was wrong—the Canada goose is known to have arrived in Europe naturally. They migrate as many as 4,025 kilometers (2,500 mi) per season or 8,050 kilometers (5,000 mi) per year. Their usual migration altitude is 915 meters (3,000 ft), but they have been observed as high as 8,850 meters (29,000 ft), where the temperature can be as low as -51º C (-60º F). Some ornithologists suggest that changes in the polar ice cap have made such transatlantic migration more possible.
I always get the shivers when these birds honk at me from above as they ply the silvery dawn sky in V formation. While bird-watching from the boat that morning, I knew I was watching something very special from my privileged perch. But what I hadn’t realized is that all of us, except the goslings, had flown so far to get there!