It had been raining steadily for the past half hour, but now the clouds were thicker and angrier and the drops that fell from them were starting to freeze. The wind howled from the north-east and the sky was suddenly lit up by a flash of lightning, followed by a long menacing rumble of thunder.
Padge glanced over his shoulder, his powerful muscles beating his wings steadily as he did so and he honked worriedly at Junor. She was gradually falling back, losing the lift that his slipstream provided. Ahead of them, a line of Greylag Geese stretched forward to where Semmin, the lead bird, drove the front of the ‘V’ into the worsening weather.
To their left, Padge could see the other arm of the formation and the gaps that were starting to appear, particularly at the back, where the younger and the less experienced birds were struggling to keep up.
The wind veered slightly and a strong gust hit them full in the face. Padge faltered, losing his rhythm and dropped back from the bird in front.
Junor honked from behind.
“Padge. I can’t keep up.”
He looked down. Far below them were open fields and country roads bordered by hedgerows. There was no sign of water. If they stopped, there would be nowhere to shelter and no cover from predators. It was late and there was only an hour or two of daylight left, which was why their leaders were still driving on, looking for somewhere safe for the night.
Padge eased back until he was in front of Junor once more and redoubled his efforts, beating his wings strongly, copying the lead birds and letting Junor tuck in behind him where she was shielded from the gusting wind and where she caught some of the updraft from his wings.
To their left, the gaps in the formation were getting even bigger as the wind increased in intensity. Above them, the bottom of the cloud layer was being shredded by the force of the storm and below, the trees that they flew over were whipping backwards and forwards as if they might be uprooted at any moment.
Padge’s wings ached with the effort as they slowly closed up on the birds in front and Padge honked loudly at them.
“Slow down. We’re losing touch at the back.”
The message travelled up the line to the front of the ‘V’ in a series of honked calls and the reply came back the same way.
“Can’t stop. Need to press on before it gets worse.”
As if it were a cue, another bolt of lightning flashed from above, lighting up the formation and the clap of thunder which followed hurt Padge’s ears it was so loud. Far below he caught a glimpse of something reflecting the lightning back from within a stand of trees that ran alongside the main road.
“Junor, I think there’s water down there.”
“Where?” she called.
Padge pointed with his beak. “There. In the trees.”
Even while they were talking, they had fallen back another yard.
“Let’s stop,” Padge said. “We can’t keep up much longer anyway.”
Junor sounded worried. “Is it safe?”
“Don’t worry,” he replied, “I’ll look after you.” He honked at the birds in front to let them know they were dropping off and was surprised when two pairs broke out of the line ahead of them and came back to join them. An older female took up position on Padge’s left.
“We’ll stop with you dear. It’s madness to keep going in the middle of this.”
The other birds bobbed their heads briefly in agreement and formed up behind them, making a smaller ‘V’ with Padge at the front. Whether he wanted it or not, the position made him the leader of the group and the others flew behind, waiting for him to lead them down.
As they descended, the wind buffeted them even more as it rushed over the ground, deflecting upwards over banks and hills and plunging down into dips and valleys. The rain was turning to sleet and with the thick cloudbank above, the visibility wasn’t good.
Padge glimpsed the reflection of the sky once more from within the trees.
“There!” he honked, spilling air from under his wings so that he descended more quickly.
Below them was a long strip of woodland, the trees thrashing backwards and forwards in the wind, making it hard to see what lay beneath. However, as they got closer, he could see a thin line of water through the trees and alongside it a towpath. It was a canal.
Padge breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t ideal, but a canal would give them safety for the night and they could continue in the morning and catch up with the others.
“Come on,” Padge honked and banked towards the wood, spilling more air and gliding down in a series of long arcs.
The others followed, joining him fifty feet above the trees where they flew in line above the water, looking for a suitable place to land.
The trees grew close to the bank here and were mature ash and beech, rising majestically above the water, their branches stretching out to touch each other across the narrow divide. Ahead there was a clear stretch and Padge called to the others to circle while he went down.
Folding his wings slightly, he dropped below the level of the branches, flying above the open water where he could stretch his wings wide once more and go into a long glide with feet pushed out ahead of him.
The wind whistled through the woods from his left, carrying autumn leaves across the canal. Twenty feet above the water, he was blown sideways where a gap in the trees let the full force of the wind through. He corrected skilfully, dropped the last ten feet to the water and skimmed across the surface, stopping beside a patch of reeds where he could be seen from above.
Keeping to open water, Padge swam in a tight circle, checking the reeds and the canal banks on either side. There was no sign of danger, so he rose half out of the water, beat his wings to release the tension in his muscles and called out loudly to Junor and the others.
Above, the other birds had circled and Junor now had the lead. They continued the pattern, coming back to the point where Padge had made his approach and then they dropped one by one through the treetops, following the same path Padge had taken.
As they came in, lightning flashed once more, silhouetting them against the slate grey sky and at that very moment there was an ear-splitting crack from an ash tree that stood on the bank and which was bent at an impossible angle by the force of the wind.
It all seemed to happen in slow motion. As Junor glided down towards him, Padge saw the Ash snap halfway up its trunk as it passed the point of no return. The massive structure tipped over the water, its branches flailing downwards as it crashed firstly onto the canal bank and then into the water.
Junor didn’t stand a chance. The tree struck her in mid flight as she came in to land, its branches catching her across the back and wings, knocking her out of the air and down to the water below. Junor folded her wings instinctively, but she couldn’t avoid the collision. There was a sharp pain across her back and in her right elbow and then she was tumbling, round and round, upside down, until she hit the water, a tangle of branches pushing her down into the cold, dark water below.
Padge screamed a warning call, but it was too late. Above him, he saw Junor plucked from the air by the flailing branches before he too was thrust beneath the water as the huge weight of the tree crashed down on top of them.
Behind Junor, the older female shrieked in alarm and spread her wings wide, braking as hard as she could and dropping into a tight circle that took her away from the danger. She beat her wings rapidly, climbing back the way she had come, with the other three close behind. Once they’d reached a safe height, the four of them circled again to look down at the fallen tree and the mass of broken branches that were now strewn across the towpath. There was no sign of either Padge or Junor and after battling with the wind to circle four more times, the old female turned away, leading the others above the trees to look for somewhere safer to land.
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Copyright © 2016 J. Hall, JRGM Publishing.