Pilot story and photos

by Andrea Barkan

More than 18,000 Aleutian geese flew through a majestic dawn sky at Point St. George in Crescent City Thursday morning, to the delight of their devoted early-morning audience.

About 50 people gathered to watch the geese under the auspices of the Aleutian goose fly-off party, a community kick off for the upcoming sixth annual Aleutian Goose Festival.

andquot;Since the festival has started, the community has really celebrated the birds,andquot; Volunteer Rick Hiser said.

andquot;Seven years ago, you wouldn't have seen but one or two cars in this parking lot at this time,andquot; Hiser said.

Another fly-off party is scheduled for 5:45 a.m. March 18 at Point St. George.

Aleutian geese migrate from their winter home at a wildlife refuge in California's San Joaquin Valley to Crescent City every year.

Hiser said the geese feed in Crescent City pastures, preparing for a nonstop 2,200-mile flight to the far west edge of the Aleutian Islands, where they breed and molt.

They lose about 40 percent of their body weight during the two-day flight.

andquot;The fat they put on here is critical to their breeding success,andquot; Hiser said.

andquot;They leave here in pretty good physical condition,andquot; he said.

The Aleutian goose was listed as an endangered species in the 1960s, when the population dropped to around 500, Hiser said.

Lynn Berner, of Klamath, Calif., said he helped count, trap and tag geese at Point St. George in the 1970s when the population was around 750.

Berner returned Thursday, for the first time in years, to a different picture.

andquot;I was blown away,andquot; Berner said. andquot;I was totally amazed. It was truly spectacular.andquot;

Two years ago, the Aleutian goose became one of just a few animals to make its way off the endangered species list.

About 50,000 Aleutian geese exist now, Hiser said.

andquot;It's an endangered species success story,andquot; he said.

During her 24 years in Alaska, Gracia Molloy watched the geese arrive in spring.

Molloy, who now lives in Crescent City, watched the goose fly-off for the third year Thursday.

andquot;This is such a thrill to see them,andquot; Molloy said. andquot;It's like seeing old friends.andquot;

Molloy's husband, John, also enjoyed the view.

andquot;This is worth coming out to see,andquot; he said.

andquot;It's just part of seeing a small bit of the creation that you don't normally get to see,andquot; John said. andquot;It really makes you feel connected with the environment.andquot;

The Aleutian Goose Festival, March 26 through 28, offers a myriad of birding field trips, seminars, hikes and more.

Registration costs $40 and event fees vary. A andquot;kids and goslings cornerandquot; at the Crescent City Cultural Center will feature free children's activities.

The Redwood Economic Development Institute is the nonprofit organizing the festival, REDI President Martha McClure said.

andquot;Our goal is to assist the community in economic development that will allow us to be independent,andquot; she said.

andquot;By the goose festival coming here, we're bringing in 250 people annually,andquot; McClure said.

andquot;It aids the community in the dollars that are spent here,andquot; she said.

It also lifts community spirit by reminding residents of the area's natural beauty, she added.

McClure said they hope to make the area a destination for bird watchers.

andquot;Our goal is this (festival) will be a must-see on their life list,andquot; she said.

Online registration is encouraged. Visit www.aleutiangoosefestival.org. or call (707) 465-0888 to request a mail-in registration form.