Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Act One: Baird's Sparrow Madness

It troubled my thoughts for weeks. With every schedule change and the breeding season creeping towards an end, I was restless. Would the chance ever come? Last weekend it did, and with it a tale for the ages.

From Revelstoke to Calgary we drove, witnessing the aftermath of nature's destructive powers. The land had been savaged, for the Albertans had dug too greedily and too deep.

Was all the unrest in the land an ill-omen? After driving six hours to get there, and another whole day cruising back roads we began to wonder... perhaps it was. Doubt crept in and a nasty little question drifted into our consciousness. When is it time to give up?

When the the sun beats you down and the mosquitos mercilessly drink your blood? When you're thirsty, hungry, have a sore throat and sunburnt? When your talk of birds and babes has circulated through for a third time and the car is already looking like a waste receptacle? Never!

For you see, this was mine and Tim's quest for Baird's Sparrow.

This bird, an icon of the prairies, has been in our minds for some time. Dull to some, it captured our imagination and occupied a place in the dark recesses of our minds. We had planned it long ago. This was the going to be the summer of the Baird's and we had every confidence we would succeed.

Sibley describes Baird's Sparrow habitat thus; tall dense grass. Sounds easy enough. After all, we were heading to the prairie country of Alberta, with intel on back roads to drive where we would get them easily. Its the breeding season after all, what could go wrong?

After a full day of searching, it turns out quite a lot. Expecting something like the beautiful grasslands I had seen in South Dakota, we were dismayed to find the country around Brooks Alberta a patch work of intensive agriculture and over-grazed grasslands. Not the home of the Baird's Sparrow! We felt cheated, like the kid who buys an ice cream cone on a hot day and just as they go to take that first glorious lick, the bloody thing plops on the ground; soiled, its sweet satisfaction wrested away.

The roads we tried seemed not to fit with the aforementioned habitat. Our intel seemed no good; the few ebird points we took down as well. Our hearts were breaking. Even the old Texas standby of fried chicken, ice tea, and beer didn't seem to help (we added donuts - a Tim Special).

Fried Chicken not pictured
In desperation, we drove to Dinosaur Provincial Park. Ebird had a few recent hits on the bird, and with naturalist staff, perhaps they'd be able to set the record straight. More failure. The only good thing in our talk with the naturalist is that I used a hilarious Jurrasic Park joke about not going into the long grass. Get it??? Dinosaur park, sparrows in long grass??

 So it was that night, under the cover of darkness that we made our bed sparrowless and sad.

We somehow managed to survive the mosquito infested hell hole that night, and rose before the sun. Tim said it was to capture the sunrise over the badlands, but really I think the stench trapped beneath the fly drove him out. Being mauled by mosquitoes seemed a more favorable proposition then smelling the contents of my bowels.

Ancient home of Casmosaurus
The sun rose but we did not linger. We would leave the dinosaur bones unseen in the ground, for this was a quest to enjoy the living not the dead. And finally some life!  Gray Partridge on the road side, some Bobolinks in a field. Drawing our eyes from our map, we beheld mixed grassland that stretched onto the horizon. I knew this was the spot. In my heart, I knew that salvation awaited. We would taste the sweetness of the land, we would see the Baird's Sparrow.

Marbled Godwit crossing the road raising our spirits ever slightly

We hopped the barbed wire and began the search. Combing through the grass I wandered ever farther from the road and Tim. Then, in what felt like suspended animation, the world slowed and I heard a downward trinkle on the wind. Could it be? I listened harder. The sweet sounds of the Baird's Sparrow reached my ears. I broke into a run like a wild horse on an endless field. I went forth, my spirit rising with every downward fall of that short beautiful melody. I waved frantically at Tim, who thankfully, had the good grace to gaze upward and spot me. Together we crept forward and beheld a sight that I will never forget. Perched on a small sage, a creamy bellied, golden crowned, brown streaked feathered angel practically brought us to tears. We broke down in a fit of crying laughter. Drool ran down my mouth.

The bird

Our reaction
Creeping in for a close up!
Swainson's Hawk chicks right by the road!!
The chase had been one of those moments where I had let despair enter my heart, where I had questioned the reason I even bird, and even the point of life itself. Yet, seeing that sentinel of the grassland made the despair vanish. In its place was a renewed sense of wonder and joy.

I sat there on my knees in the grass contemplating life. I thought of the dinosaurs and of the creature singing before me. I thought of how the winds of time had shaped the land, bringing once great beasts to dust and bones, yet leaving their descendant, a small yet mighty creature, to stalk their ancient homes and inspire two fools of the Homo sapiens sapiens race to continue to rage on!

Raging on!!!!

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