“It was,” Doris Burnett said, “a miserable day.”
And off to an inconspicuous start, too. There was a moment of panic several hours before dawn as I drove up from the Blue River Valley on the Canyon Road—not its real name but what the locals call it, and as good as any—when as I neared the crest of the rise the road narrowed and narrowed more between vast dredges of snowbanks pushed ever higher, my headlights blinding against that implacable whiteness and the outer darkness beyond an unrelieved abyss, and a sudden sense of claustrophobia squeezing my throat like an invisible hand. What would happen if I met another traveler, I wondered. There was no way I was going to back down into the valley, no way. Nor was there any slowing or stopping to look for birds, having only the one lane, and not even that, not really, more a three-quarters lane, and, in a few places where snow almost brushed the sides of the truck, a half lane at best. Some of the drifts rose higher than the cab, forming a sort of roofless tunnel. And then I broke out and sailed free onto the upper fields where the full blue moon silvered the land, and came at last to the highway. It was blessedly dry, its shoulders graded.
I said aloud to myself, I do not want to do that again. And a few miles down the road did just that.
It wasn’t because I felt any desire to relive the experience. I didn’t, but I needed to assess what we would face once the sun cleared the horizon—we being participants in the tenth annual Blue Rapids Christmas Bird Count. Were all the roads as bad, or worse? Were some better? So I turned east and dropped into a narrow valley on a pale ribbon barely wider than the truck and thumped across a bridge whose railings were hidden behind snowpack and gunned the engine to get me up an icy incline and did the same on a southbound road whose drifts were almost as bad as the Canyon Road but not quite. We were in for it, to be sure.
I’d been out since four a.m. looking for owls, or, more particularly, listening for owls. Owling, as it’s called, is a full-sensory endeavor where hearing is more important than sight. And not without its comical moments, interspersed as they often are between long pauses where nothing answers from the darkness but the dull beat of a heart smothered beneath multiple layers of fleece. In this instance I stopped near a deep ravine bordered by thick woods, their barren twisted limbs reaching toward the moon as if in supplication, and after a short time of trying to hear above the ringing in my ears released the pause button on the recorder. At once the wild guttural cackle of a pair of barred owls split the night, immediately followed by what sounded like the tape eating itself. Puzzled, I switched off the recorder but the sounds continued, courtesy of a pair of actual barred owls who clearly took umbrage at my intrusion. I politely thanked them and wished them a good night, and slipped away.
It was short-lived, mainly due to impassable roads. At a sunless dawn I met the others and we formed groups and headed out in opposite cardinal directions. The thermometer on the bank read six degrees below zero.
I hated to admit it, but I had almost canceled the count. It was the safe thing to do, perhaps even the smart thing to do, but now it was a matter of going out and seeing what could be seen, and no matter the brutal arctic conditions, the barely passable roads, the knee-deep drifts, the rivers frozen hard as stone and air that burned like fire, it was going out and not staying in, it was doing and not thinking about doing, it was acting and not taking the easy way out. And our rewards were many, not the least being the three brilliantly plumaged fox sparrows at Antioch Cemetery, or my first northern shrike for the county, or the brittle beauty of the wintry terrain, ours alone to behold on roads long since abandoned. It was hearing in the stillness of woods the crisp tinkle of moving water, as crystalline as shattering glass, and watching clouds of robins erupt in an explosion of reddish contrails, almost bloody in that colorless void.
It was a fierce and dangerous landscape few willingly enter, and we entered it without hesitation, and studied it from all angles and sought it out and walked it and breathed it and tasted it on numb lips, and like all good things it was over too soon. After comparing notes and eating a hot meal at the local bar on the town square, our conversation dripping with such esoteric items as snow bunting and lapland longspur and identification characteristics distinguishing the two shrike species, almost otherworldly in that place of booze and sports TV, we separated and headed for our homes, and snow began falling. But I would not go home yet, there was one last thing I had to do.
I nosed the truck southward and branched off the old Irving Road and left the town behind. On my right the land sloped toward Capital Bluff, a square-topped knoll visible throughout much of the county, while on my left the land dropped through featureless snowy fields toward the Big Blue. Visibility faded to a quarter mile or less. After crossing the railroad tracks the road veered straight south. It was here that the snow bunting was found, a county first and a bird I dearly wanted to locate. I drove slowly, eyes scanning the fields for movement, but except for a pair of meadowlarks and dozens of crows, there was nothing to be seen but stubbled rows of cornstalks slowly disappearing beneath a fresh coverlet of snow.
And unutterably silent and still. I remembered what Doris had said, how miserable the day was, and I thought she was right but for all the wrong reasons. The day had been a brief interlude into winter’s cold and terrible beauty, and now that it was over I found myself hesitant to return indoors. After making another sweep of the area I pulled onto the shoulder of the road and cut the engine, and sat there listening to the engine tick its heat away as snow soft as down blanketed the windows and obscured the fields and the distant gray woods, and the cold seeped in and I did not care but sat there like a stone, and still the snow fell as if it would never stop falling.
Just as I finished reading this, a big hawk swooped up past our window and landed on the roof. So, I guess I've been birding, too, without having to get out of the chair.
This is a beautiful column.
Mark in KC
Sometimes the best birding is done from a comfortable chair. Stay warm and keep watching.
Rare that I get to read such at 30 degrees and falling, with the north wind howling, bringing the feel of your snowpack south. The window at my desk faces north, and we don't build here for your conditions, so I've got a blanket around me, and I think I can see the bunting, after all.
Linda -- I'm sure 30 degrees at your latitude is bitter indeed. However, it's about minus 30 here with the wind now, and that just hurts. I loved your comment about "building for conditions." Our 100-year-old farmhouse is as porous as Swiss cheese and about as drafty. I don't have a blanket (yet) but I'm going for some hot chocolate with butterscotch schnapps.
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