Sunset bison

Sunset bison
Sundogs

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Chasing elusion



It’s always the same, you sit down to your first cup of coffee, sleep dragging at your gritty eyes, your list of to-dos exponentially long depending on the day of the week but set aside for a brief spell to collect your wits and infuse your sluggish gray matter with hard jolts of caffeine, and about the time you start to feel slightly human the phone rings and everything goes to hell.

It was early, my notes organized on my desk and my pen ready and the recorder plugged into the telephone jack, and Lori stirring in the kitchen. A morning like any other but fated to become something else, a morning good and slow and easy, a morning cloudless and hot and getting hotter, hot enough for the window air conditioner which I turned on and promptly turned off at hearing the phone ring.

I recognized the voice as that of my editor, Dan, but his tone had a clipped, strangled terseness.

“Crested caracara,” he said, and the line went dead.

I blinked and stared stupidly at the receiver and blinked again and set the phone on the cradle. It took about ten seconds for my body to catch up with my brain which had already conjured an image of a large distinctive raptor of Trans-Pecos Texas and northern Mexico. When it did, I roundly cursed cell phones and dead spots and tried calming my racing heart. 

His call meant that he had either found one or was chasing one. That the species had never before been sighted in Kansas meant nothing—”Birds have wings,” a friend of mine used to say. That it had never before been sighted in Kansas meant everything.

The phone rang. I yanked it to my ear and heard the first syllables of what would have been more had the signal continued, which it didn’t. 

An e-mail popped into my inbox. 13th rd between gypsum and fox. West of Washington, it read.

I grabbed my binoculars, the camera and a hat and ran out the door.

***

Thirty miles, I estimated, and the fuel gauge was balancing slightly above a quarter tank. I pushed the car to 70 and 75 and on long empty stretches to 80, wondering if I had enough gas or if I should stop and refill in Linn. No time for that, I thought. The bird is there and he has it spotted and it might not be there long.

The trick was to get there in the shortest amount of time. Thirteenth Road was gravel so I kept to Highway 148 and counted down the alphabetic road names to Heritage, which looked wide and well-traveled. Braking hard, I fishtailed onto the gravel and sped north dragging a plume of dust. Every raptor, every speck in the sky, was suspect though I hesitated to stop to look. At 13th I headed west into unexplored territory, the road narrowing until it swung north for a short spur. It continued as a weedy single-lane rut, which I nosed onto.

A mile further and the road was blocked by a van and a truck. Dan was pacing. “You missed it by eight minutes,” he said.

Warren, the driver of the truck, had managed to photograph the bird before it winged off to the south. We followed as best as we could on rutted roads distanced one mile from the other, stopping occasionally to scan the trees and the fields. Vultures drifted lazily on thermals and red-tailed hawks kited, their forms ghostly in the white hot haze of the sky. To the west towering thunderheads blossomed on the horizon though where we were the air remained sultry and ovenlike, the area unpeopled and empty with only an occasional roofless ruin to show proof of a former civilization.

After two long southbound miles we stopped near an intersection. 

“It could be anywhere,” Warren said.

He was right. It might have landed in a tree hidden from the road, or it might have kept flying. It might be 20 miles from here for all we knew, or it might be watching us from a shaded perch. A first-state record wasn’t something to be so easily dismissed, however, so after a quick exchange of phone numbers we split up.

I continued southward. The land undulated like waves at sea, the draws and gullies heavily wooded, fields a checkerboard of corn, soybeans or pasture. Once past the intersection the land swallowed me in verdant loneliness and I drove with no thought other than finding the caracara. Stopping on high ground to scan became rote, panning the horizon and the ragged treeline and upward into the shimmering glare and back before moving on, wasps and horseflies buzzing the windshield and the woods clamorous with cicadas. Eastern kingbirds seesawed from fencepost to thicket joined by mockingbirds and chipping sparrows, and other species that normally would have given me pause—red-headed woodpeckers, scissor-tailed flycatchers—were summarily dismissed. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack, though this particular haystack covered half a county.

  The gas gauge steadily dropped past a quarter tank. I drove a slow mile south of Highway 148 and jumped a mile to the east and headed north again, hoping the phone would ring and end this fruitless search. When it finally did it was Dan saying they were calling it off.

I’d had enough. The car was running out of gas and Linn was a good 15 miles away. But before turning around I navigated a rutted, muddy stretch that led to a high hill, where I stopped and looked around. The view itself was stunning but I had eyes only for a raptor perched atop a dead snag.

It was a good half mile off and no way to get closer, backlit by the morning sun. More shape than detail, but when it turned its head I saw what appeared to be a massive hooked bill. I braced the binoculars on a rusty gate and tried calming my nerves. This is it, I thought. I found it.

The rising sun beat down like a torch baking me at my lonely vigil. I resolved to remain in place until the bird moved no matter how long it took. Five minutes, ten, the minutes ticked by slow as hours. Sweat trickled into my eyes and soaked my shirt. After a while I began to question my resolve though the bird was never questioned. Hawks have smaller bills and this one was clearly a monster, but I needed it to fly and it appeared in no hurry to leave the tree.

I was ready to give up when it spread its wings and dropped. It took a second to locate it but the sun and the heat haze obscured its plumage until it fell below the horizon. The distinctive white banded tail I expected was reddish brown.

It was time to go. I turned the car around and headed for Linn, eyes alternating between sky and gas gauge, remembering other chases that were more fruitful, the snowy owl, the Inca dove and the long-billed thrasher, and the others, too, the failed quests where every bird no matter how common or mundane possessed for a heartbeat a momentous attraction far greater than it ever would again, every bird a promise of limitless possibilities. 

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