The winter sun is like lemon ice behind the gray clouds. We are cold. It is late afternoon at Pungo Lake, and the constant wind in the cypress trees sounds like the ocean. It pierces our fleece jackets and hats. We shiver. We wait, on the point that juts out into the lake, surrounded by tall reeds and grasses.

This is an annual winter pilgrimage for some of us. Others in the group make the trip more frequently, to see the tens of thousands of tundra swans and snow geese who winter here.

We can hear a few swans calling–an excited chorus of hoots and roller-coaster screams, and we can see them in the distance bobbing on the lake, like a score of big white pillows. They sound happy, as though they are hailing good friends long absent.

Blackbirds by the thousands pepper the air, pivoting and swooping in one direction, then another.

Then we see the first of the long ragged lines of snow geese. They are flying with the north wind, and the waving line of their formation looks like a charcoal drawing of a river or mountains. They are moving from their feeding fields to the safety of the lake for the night.

There comes another line of them, and another. Hundreds, maybe a thousand right here. Audubon says there are more in the area this winter than ever before–maybe 50,000.

They come closer, and one group of several hundred flies right over us. We can see them look at us. We can’t speak.

They are here.

We are here.

This is why we come.

Stephanie Bass is a Raleigh writer and consultant.