The remembrance lingers though I cannot say why. I knelt there on the banks of Cedar Creek and picked it up and watched it slowly writhe as if it struggled through a toxic medium. A squiggle of snow formed a mysterious imprint at my feet. I looked upstream and down, heard a rattle from around the bend, and thought, What now?
By the time Chod Hedinger and I parked the truck near the old barn and started on foot toward the bridge, a ghostly structure half-visible in the falling snow, we were tired and, perhaps, a little dispirited.
There comes a point in every Christmas Bird Count when the day’s excitement dulls and the birding becomes more rote than pleasure. When finding another flock of sparrows or juncos elicits groans rather than grins, and crows become repugnant creatures who in their very blackness seem the personification of merciless winter. Whatever acuity one possessed at dawn’s early light is gradually blunted from the drudgery of the same—the same bird species in the same habitat under the same gray sky held aloft by the same gray trees.
This is partly a result of birder greed. Since a count is all about numbers—tallying every bird within a restricted geographic area, ours being from the Rocky Ford area to the upper northeastern reaches of Tuttle Creek Lake—the objective may seem simple: find the birds and add them up. But in that way we tend to corrupt even the most basic functions, here we’re guilty of sullying the math by focusing on specific numbers rather than the totality. More crows? Big deal. We covet different bird species not only to break up the monotony but in the hopes of shattering previous records. It’s not more juncos we’re after but the solitary Townsend’s solitaire perched on the tallest cedar, the lone fox sparrow lurking in a pokeweed tangle, or, if we let our flights of fancy take flight, something really outlandish, like a ferruginous hawk, a Smith’s longspur or a long-eared owl. In short, we want surprises, and lots of them.
By mid-afternoon the sameness of the same lulls the counter to a daze only one shade brighter than boredom. We were, by then, a few degrees south of that point.
It had already been a long day. Snow was falling by the time I reached the county line, first a few flakes dancing in the headlights and then more, until the predawn darkness paled to a milky opacity narrowing my world to an area illuminated by the twin lights cast before me. The fields beyond, the wooded draws, the farmsteads lit by their singular yard lights, faded into obscurity. I sailed in a sea of white.
Dawn was a long time coming. We marched down a long straight road with open fields and staggered woods on one side and an ashen body of water on the other, accompanied only by the whisper of falling snow, the crunch of boots, the sharp rustle of clothing and the deep moaning of flexing ice. Our recorders exploded the stillness as the call of a barred owl echoed through the woods. We waited for a reply that was not forthcoming, and continued on, deeper into the trees, where we repeated our actions until acceding defeat.
Daylight never came, only a sort of half-light. Our morning consisted of fogged binoculars and wet lenses, frozen beards and feet; the treeless knolls and hillocks veiled in falling snow reminiscent of Arctic tundra, with civilization something left behind years before. We skidded and slipped down a rutted road until it ended in a frozen wasteland, the only living thing a rough-legged hawk winging past to vanish in the gloom. Once I broke through a dark ring of cedars and stepped onto a wide level plain, and the half-seen spillway to the north appeared like the ruins of some vast monument of a forgotten race.
Hot lunch and a warm house broke winter’s spell for a brief respite, but the harm was done. Our relaxation was too much, and the cold seemed to intensify when we again set forth. Washington Ranch was our last stop, a mile or two on foot up the creek and through the wooded hills and back. Our final chance for something new.
We followed the highway to the bridge and descended to the creek. It was shallow, running sluggish, iced over in places, its open leads dark as cedars. A monotone winterscape with two hunched figures moving into the teeth of the wind.
A mixed flock of birds led us upstream like feathered Pied Pipers. “Yellow-rumped warbler,” Chod yelled; the first of the day. While from our left the song of a Carolina wren mingled with alarm notes from the group, we followed as they moved on, stumbling over ice-slick stones, trying to separate the species to get an accurate count.
My foot slipped and I almost went down. Beside me, stretched upside down at full length in a deep patch of snow, limned with frost, was a leopard frog.
Its presence there was totally without precedence. It looked dead, but then its legs twitched in a torpid rowing motion. There were no tracks leading to its location, only a gnarly indentation as if snow had been dumped. Looking up, I saw the bare limb of a tree. Could a kingfisher had nabbed the frog and landed on the limb to eat it? Surely it was too large.
Chod had gone on but stopped when I called. “What should I do with it?”
“Either way, it’s dead,” he said, and turning pursued the birds.
I set the frog in a shallow rill with a deeper pool below. It bobbed in the current like a half-filled helium balloon. I hoped for some thawing, some life, but it appeared to be in shock. Whether from the cold or the bird I could not tell; maybe both.
The rattle of a kingfisher was borne on the wind. It sounded like cold cruel mirth, nature’s inimitable law of survival. There was nothing more I could do. I passed on, following Chod’s tracks in the snow until a bend in Cedar Creek bore me away.