The big pale bird flew low to the stubbled field, its powerful wingbeats propelling it toward a sharp rise where the land fell away toward the distant Little Blue River. Something about its flight pattern seemed odd, simultaneously more buoyant and erratic, its color the epitome of a gray wintry dawn.
The light was bad, my speed excessive, a curve approaching—not the most ideal conditions for tracking a bird in flight, but a birder’s life is nothing if not fraught with unexpected and occasionally serendipitous adventure.
No way, I thought. And in denial craned my head to follow its trajectory, letting off the gas after making sure nobody was behind me. Was that a darker barred pattern on its back or a trick of the light? Was it—?
A blaring horn lurched my attention back to the road. My car had drifted halfway into the opposite lane much to the opprobrium of an oncoming driver. But even as I whipped my car back into its rightful lane my brain racked through potential identifying characteristics, none of which clicked. One final glance and it was gone.
The wings were too broad, my argumentative alter ego said. The tail’s too short. The wingbeat didn’t match.
“And it wasn’t white enough, either,” I said sarcastically.
No matter: it’s gone.
I groaned. The dirt road past the school paralleled the river before bending toward Waterville, but after the rains it would probably be too muddy to risk. Nevertheless, I pulled into the golf course for a quick reversal and gunned the car in pursuit.
It wasn’t the first time I’d engaged in a high speed pursuit of a winter ghost, nor was it my first for Kansas. Years ago I’d traversed the lower counties in a vain and futile search for a snowy owl that had been seen by a veritable host of birders, and years before that we’d rocketed down gravel roads in northeastern Colorado trailing a specimen that eluded a small knot of twitchers (as the Brits say), but not, I’m happy to report, us. And here I was at it again. With a track record of fifty-fifty, I didn’t know whether to laugh or call my therapist.
By all measures, it’s been a bumper year for snowies. They started showing up about a month ago, first in Butler County and then, well, just about everywhere. In fact, two were reported from Cheyenne Bottoms on the same day, five at Smithville Lake north of Kansas City—a number that make my head ache. I’d never seen a snowy owl in Kansas and wanted one desperately for my state list, but it seemed that wherever I went my presence was something of an anti-owl deflector. (An egregious case happened about 15 years ago when my wife and I drove six hours to Ogallala, Neb., to find what everybody claimed was an “impossible to miss” Ross’s Gull. It was, by all accounts, the most agreeable Ross’s Gull ever recorded in human history. Whenever it saw someone with a pair of binoculars, it would fly in and land on their car, they said. No, no, others said, it would land on your binoculars! Not only did we miss the bird, it was never seen again.)
Invasions of northern species aren’t new, but they are sporadic and, for some species, fairly rare. And while invasions are good news to birders, they’re bad news to the birds. Snowies and other birds of the Canadian tundra don’t wing it all the way to Kansas to spend the holidays with their extended families, they arrive here half-starved and half-dead from a collapse of their natural food supply. Indeed, the first snowy to be found this year died of starvation two days later.
From a birders’ perspective, a major concern with avian invasions such as the one currently ongoing is that our overactive minds turn every ashen shrub, every shred of litter, every small patch of snow into the object of our desire. Since the invasion began, birders have reported seeing about forty owls. They’ve also reported seeing thousands of white plastic bags, white plastic cups, white plastic milk jugs, white cardboard boxes, white scraps of clothing and other objects-that-look-exactly-like-snowy-owls-but-aren’t.
My own such bird was never found, thanks in large part to the greasiness of the road past the school. Nevertheless, every white object in every field I passed on the way to and from work, day after day and week after week, demanded a second look. As the failures racked up, it got to the point where I didn’t want to look, knowing full well that all I’d see is another damn grocery bag flapping in the wind.
And then, one afternoon with the sky smudging toward a deep charcoal nothingness and the horizons closing in, I saw a snowy.
It was luminous, bright against winter-sere fields, a soft rounded shape with one wing outstretched as if mantling its prey. After almost dislocating my vertebrae from rubbernecking, I slammed on the brakes and spewed gravel for a hundred feet. A quick U-turn brought me in line with the owl, which now seemed to have pulled its wing closer to its body. Its breast appeared streaked with fine black markings indicating a female.
Pulse hammering, I fumbled in my messenger bag for the binoculars. A few vehicles whipped past, their unobservant occupants unaware of the spectacle right outside their windows. Here was one of the most sought-after birds in the state, and I alone was witness.
The owl’s head turned to stare at me as I clapped the binos to my eyes and spun the focus knob. For a long, lingering moment its huge golden eyes burned into mine, and then it magically transformed into a moldering cardboard box.
On the day I write this, two additional owls were sighted. Neither, I might add, by me. A friend sent me a photo of a snowy owl taken off her back porch outside of Concordia. My Monday sixty-mile commute garnered dozens of white bags, a white fencepost, several bleached tree trunks and a white plastic tub. But I try not to be discouraged. Only by seeking do we find, only through persistence do we succeed.