Birding Big Year 2016

February 14, 2016

Truckers and Chukars: White-knuckle Birding at Rattlesnake Pass

Filed under: Birding, Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 11:53 pm
0675 Barn Owl8

A Barn Owl escort down refuge road

I have been consoling myself of the second place finish coming out of January with the knowledge that I would soon be birding the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.  That day has now come.  A medical appointment in Salt Lake City gives the whole adventure legitimacy.  I am not skipping work for birds, but neither will I skip birds for sick leave.  Fortunately the refuge is on the way (practically in the way) of my intended destination, and birding is always therapeutic.

Hours before my darkened departure, a weather system has arrogantly dumped four inches of fresh snow on already ice-covered roads. I am leaving plenty early to compensate, but creeping down the highway at 40 mph will certainly cut into my birding time at the refuge.  Mile after mile from Narrows Road to Utah 30, I have the highways to myself, and so I take my half out of the middle, and keep it in four-wheel drive.  But once I hit I-84, it’s a video-gamer’s nightmare.  Truckers from hell (or maybe the arctic) appear from nowhere. They race at me, overtake and splash me.  The asphalt is buried in slush that leaps to my windshield with every passing rig of rage.  God help me!  (Short, heartfelt prayers are most effective).

Even in the clouded dawn I can see white knuckles gripping the wheel, anticipating certain death.  The blood has gone into hibernation and muscles are clinched and locked.  I try to console my fingers with split-second stretches, but they aren’t listening.  On the uphill grade of Rattlesnake Pass, the truckers that passed moments ago have now met their match.  They climb the mountain in low gear.  I am forced to take the left lane and pass them, but this lane is unplowed. A northbound truck plunges into the medium. I pass within 20 feet of him.  Now the blood is draining out of my head.  hold on!  I warn out loud to no one…or maybe to my fingers that seem to be warping the wheel with superhuman strength.  The stress-o-meter rises and I feel that I might black-out in the white-out conditions.  Just keep rolling, I hear myself say.

Thirty miles later, the jeep rolls into the refuge parking lot, and a surreal sense of calm descends upon me.  I made it; I have no idea how, and very little recollection of the past 40 minutes.  I am the only visitor (survivor?).  It is silent and cold, and slightly snowing. Inside the visitor center, I check with the local birding experts about refuge conditions, what’s frozen, and what’s hot.  There is very little open water, and the refuge roads are reportedly slick, narrow, rutted, and occasionally muddy.  American Pipits are being seen along the road edges – I need those.  I am also hoping for a look at the handful of waterfowl remaining on my list.

A smile creeps over my face as I wander down the refuge road.  I am still alive, and I am birding.  Life is good.  …but the refuge is dead.  Very few birds are active or even present.  I take joy in seeing a small flock of starlings – at least its something!  A coot swims down the canal; a single house sparrow yields the road; an Eurasian Collared Dove makes a distant flight.  Even the bad birds can be good in times like these.

And then it happens…that moment when nature throws you a bone – or in this case – a Barn Owl, maintaining a flight path and pace with the jeep.  Normally birds veer off, up and away, but this one mysteriously remains at eye-level, and parallels my route just 30 feet beyond arm’s reach. I have done some stupid things in my life, but what I am now contemplating could easily earn a spot in the top ten.

The refuge road is straight but narrow, and on either side – deep water-filled canals.  I can’t continue to watch the road and photograph the owl at the same time.  I simply have to choose.  And its an easy decision.  Most birders I know will take the shot.  Pressing my left knee up into the steering wheel and my right foot on the gas,  I twist my torso counter-clockwise and become a multi-tasking Gumby.  My knee drives and my hands and eyes perpendicularly steer the 400 mm zoom lens squarely at the owl. I rip through 80-100 images like a Gatling gun. Now…I can’t be sure, but I suspect that I traveled more than a quarter-mile at 25 miles per hour without ever confirming the road.  Fortunately the owl chooses to perch on a gate post just before the road takes a 90 degree left.

A few miles later, gulls and grebes play in the unfrozen water. Shifting periodically from binoculars to field guide, I spend time to the excess, trying to confirm if the gull in scope has pink legs or yellow.  The light is horribly washed.  I really want this to be a Herring Gull, but I just can’t be sure.  He takes flight and my last hope for a new bird vanishes into the frozen sky.  I am simply out of time and need to get down the interstate to my appointment.

New and more vicious truckers surround me, forcibly escorting me south I-15 to the inner sanctum of Salt Lake City. Wipers work overtime, until like horses that have been ridden too far too fast, they give out and collapse. The right-side rubber blade is ripped from its arm by accumulated ice. I am blind. Somehow, beyond my own vision and wisdom, I arrive at the clinic.  There is just enough time to lower my blood pressure, and allow for the color to return to my fingers.  The doc walks in with all the serious single-mindedness of a busy professional, “So, what have you been doing?”  “Um…White-knuckle birding.”

A few hours later, with a fresh tank of gas and new wiper blades, I rejoin the insanity headed north, I-15.  The weather worsens.  All the elements of danger return, and the blood in my knuckles rush to my heart as if to sustain the essential organs.  I can’t remember my last deep breath.  Lungs are not necessary.  Suddenly I am back on the northbound grade of Rattlesnake Pass.  Truckers to the left of me, truckers to the right.  Here I am, stuck in the middle again.

But then, like when a passing storm is silenced by the awe moment of a rainbow, I see them. Truckers fall away in a stroke of courtesy, giving me a timeless moment in the midst of the storm…to see a pair of Chukar happily feeding in the medium.  Their presence is unexpected and out of context. They are oblivious of the storm and semi-tractored chaos. This is the thrill and essence of birding, the risk and reward.  My first Big Year bird of February comes at a hard physical cost, and yet completely restores my soul.

February marches on.  The following day under sunnier circumstances, I am presented with Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, and Snow Goose east of Declo.  Howell Canyon offers a single Brown Creeper, early Sunday morning, February 7.  The following Tuesday, the Twin Sisters give up their only Canyon Wren; and two days later, a return trip from Boise leads to a successful detour into Hagerman.  The day before the birding festival, I steal away with three needed species – no charge: Yellow-rumped Warbler, Wood Duck, and Gadwall.

Life is fleeting; birding is forever. I have cheated death once more.



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