Word association game for birders: Prairie.
At least, that’s what I thought as we drove through Kansas. We had, of course, missed the mating season and thus the fabulous displays that the male birds put on in hopes of winning the opportunity to breed. These dance-offs and Prairie Idol auditions, taking place as they do loudly, persistently, and in a pre-defined location, mark the best chance for long, clear, and impressive looks at a male prairie chicken (whether you are a female prairie chicken looking for a babydaddy or a birder looking for a tick.) But prairie chickens do not dematerialize when they are not dancing, so I hoped that if I put myself in the right habitat, I might get lucky.
So, as one does when one is feeling lucky, I turned to Google. Google offered me a few options, but none seemed as appealing as the Shawnee state fishing lake, conveniently located right off the highway that we were traveling on anyhow. I copied down the directions carefully and showed the IT the map. How hard could this be?
We set off down the highway, and the first turn appeared soon enough. It couldn’t be fairly called an exit – it was at grade, and we had to cross a lane of traffic heading in the opposite direction to get where we were going. How quaint, I thought.
Still, the not-an-exit had appeared just exactly where the map had indicated that it should, and this does not always happen with birding directions that you find on the internet. Or at least, it doesn’t always happen with birding directions that I find on the internet.
I examined the roadside wires and posts as we drove, netting quite a few Meadowlarks, some Kingbirds, and an odd-looking Rock Pigeon along the way. Nothing that would constitute a lifer, though, and nothing that screamed Kansas.
We made another turn, easy enough to find – but the road down which we’d turned shortly gave way to gravel.
“We must be getting close!” I said cheerfully. The Inimitable Todd, no doubt thinking of that day in the future when the car would have to be returned to the rental office, grimaced.
We made another turn, and the gravel seemed to get dustier. On the other hand, we also saw a sign for the lake, which I resolutely decided to regard as positive.
By the time we reached the lake itself, we were traveling on rutted dirt that our little Chevy Cobalt had never been designed for – the likes of which, in fact, I’d venture to say that most American SUVs never even attain. That speaks more to the inappropriate buying impulses of most Americans than it does to our foolhardiness. I think.
There were traces of a campfire where we parked, still fragrant, although only possibly Satan himself could have needed extra warmth in the 90+ degrees of the early afternoon. Far away, a couple of old pickup trucks were parked, but I couldn’t see anyone near them. Kingbirds hawked for dragonflies over an inlet. Far away, I could hear a Song Sparrow and a tractor and the buzzing of various insects.
I also heard, after a few minutes of listening, the call of a Northern Bobwhite. This would have been very exciting if I counted ear records for my life list, but I don’t. After all, for all I knew it might have been a Mockingbird mocking a Bobwhite.
I neither heard nor saw anything that seemed like it might be a Prairie Chicken. We walked around the lake for a bit, and by a bit I mean all of a few yards. The heat and humidity once again were conspiring to squish the birding impulse clean out of me, and the Inimitable Todd, with less birding impulse to begin with, was past squished.
That didn’t mean that he didn’t have his eyes open, though. And it didn’t mean that he’d forgotten what I’d asked him to look out for. So when a sparrow-ish bird popped up that was showing a bit of yellow, he asked me if it was the Dicksissel I’d wanted.
“Over there.” He points at a patch of weeds and I scan desperately for a movement.
Eventually, he got me on the bird. Sure enough, it was a Dicksissel, my second life bird of the trip. If I reflected on the fact that thus far my life birds had both been very very similar to House Sparrows in their own way, it was only to make a koan on the nature of Nature; and when Todd suggested that we go back to the car and look for the Prairie Chickens with four wheels and some glass between us and the bugs, I did not demur.
It seemed to me that it would be a simple matter to go around the lake; unfortunately, the roads did not cooperate. Moreover, dark clouds were gathering. We passed more Meadowlarks, more Kingbirds, many Robins and Mockingbirds. We passed many pastures and fields. The dust followed us like a cloud. Horseflies hit the windows with aplomb. Everything was rattled, even the IT; he eventually pulled out his iPhone and performed his own rite of Google to get us back to the highway. It turned out it was fairly simple – much simpler, for some reason, than getting out there in the first place. I told myself that I hadn’t really expected to see the Prairie Chickens anyway, and this was true; not only was this the wrong time of year, they seemed mythological anyway. Like prairies. Where were the prairies? They were supposed to look different, I was supposed to feel different. But nothing was different.
Shortly after we got back onto the highway, the sky opened up with rain that truly earned the name cloudburst in a way that few east coast storms can.
“Well, at least you won’t have to pay to wash the car,” I pointed out. The Inimitable Todd grimaced.
I glanced out the window just in time to see the distinctive profile of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher beating a retreat to the relative shelter of a tree. By nightfall, we would be in Iowa.