John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Zach Worrell accidentally sent his quadcopter right up into a huge flock of migrating birds. Here's what he could see.
Weather-heads monitoring their Doppler this past weekend might've noticed a breakout of funny-looking precipitation northwest of Memphis. It's shown here as a green-blue blob:
There were no major storms in the area, so meteorologists investigated and found an alternate explanation for the odd signature: It was 40,000-something birds flapping at a height of about 2,000 feet, likely headed to the fertile grass-munching grounds of the Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge in northern Arkansas.
Down on the ground, Zach Worrell didn't need to be told about the bird swarm. They were right above his head in biblical numbers, dodging and screeching in a devilish fury.
He had been expecting the influx of what turned out to be mostly snow geese. "They are always present this time of year by the thousands, if not millions," he says. "You can't look in the sky without seeing a large group. Some of the groups stretch several miles in length."
Worrell believes agriculture is attracting the goosey bum-rush to his neck of the southeastern Missouri woods. "The reason waterfowl have gotten so thick here is because of a rapidly expanding rice crop," he says. "It's easy to hold water for them and they love the leftover grain."
This year, Worrell wanted to get a closer look at the honking hordes. So he sent his quadcopter buzzing into the air—which is when things got interesting. The huge flock had been heading away but, perhaps due to a vehicle below, pulled an abrupt 180. "I couldn't get it away from them quick enough, resulting in some unintentional pretty close images," he says.
The drone penetrated the sky-spanning turmoil of flailing wings, splayed tails, and snapping bills. The birds seemed to ignore the robotic intruder, acting like it was another member of their deafening squadron. The resulting shots made their way to meteorologist Ryan Vaughan, who gave the feathery mobbing the cheeky neologism "geese" clouds. For the majority of humanity that's never explored a goose cloud, here's what Worrell's quadcopter saw:
Worrell also filmed a late-November conjunction of what some call "sky carp." "They are extremely loud when close," he says. "Basically deafening when they're very close."