The second day of our Canadian adventure started far too early to be bright. By six in the morning we had risen, sucked down a quick cup of hotel coffee (shade grown, I was pleased to see) and brushed off the night’s accumulation of snow from the car in preparation for our first crucial stop of the day – the local Tim Horton’s, where I hoped to add the elusive maple-frosted doughnut to my stomach’s life list.
I know. That sounds stupid. One refined-flour-made, corn-syrup-sweetened, mass-produced doughnut may be expected to be very much like another.
On the other hand, some people would say that about sparrows, too.
Despite growing up so near the Canadian border, I was never a Tim Horton’s aficionado as a young lass – our family generally relied on the supermarket bakery to supply our doughnut-related dietary needs. Eventually Tim caught up to me, and franchises opened to much fanfare in the Big Apple in 2009 – but by that time I knew I could only be satisfied by the most Canadian of pastries, the maple-frosted doughnut which contained REAL MAPLE. Everything else, it seemed, could only risk comparison to DDs. But alas, none of the New York stores had the maple glazed doughnut, at least not when I went searching. The Inimitable Todd began to question my devotion to the search – were there really such things as maple doughnuts? I began to fear that perhaps the doughnut was a myth, or some fevered fantasy concocted out of my own culinary perversion. So I stepped into the Canadian pre-dawn slush and entered the store with trepidation.
After all that, you will understand that our failure to find the Gray Partridge was a bit of an anticlimax.
The Gray Partridge, like the Ring-necked Pheasant at the Olde Homestead, is not a native species. Introduced for the benefit of the hunting community, both birds have always had but a tenuous grip on their ABA list positions. With the ethos of scattering animals willy-nilly across the globe for “sport” in a (hopefully permanent) decline, and native predators like coyotes on the upswing, the Partridge is now a hard-to-find specialty bird. Our fearless leaders knew of an office park where a small flock frequently roosted, but when we arrived they were nowhere to be seen – either cleared out for the day or sleeping elsewhere. There was no time to stew in disappointment. We knew from the start that our chances were slender. And we had so much more to do.
Go to a tennis club parking lot, for instance. There were abandoned our vehicles and clambered over hard-packed snow to the edge of a creek, where a large flock of Common Goldeneye floated. This hardly seems worth the risk of slips and falls, you might say, when you saw Common Goldeneye just yesterday. And this is true. But these Goldeneye were different, inasmuch as they had among them a western visitor. I took a bit of scanning, but we were all eventually able to pick out a single male Barrow’s Goldeneye – a species that was also being reported at the time from Jamaica Bay, ironically. I have to say, though, that I ended up with much better looks (that is, any looks) on the tour than I would have trying to pick out a tiny bird riding a distant tide with my cruddy binoculars.
We savored this for a while, and picked up some additional waterfowl – the expected Mallards and a couple of Black Ducks and Common Mergansers – before heading back to the cars to seek the first owl of the day.
A Northern Hawk Owl is a small bird that typically perches on the tops of trees, telephone poles, and the like, and engages in blatant daylight hunting, more like a hawk than an owl. Go figure. It’s also typically a denizen of the far north, but known (and loved) for sometimes straying south to the haunts of humanity during the winter months, then picking out a small range and sticking to it despite the gawping of birders. Last year a Northern Hawk Owl pulled this stunt in Peru, New York, and nearly every birder in the Tristate area eventually made the trek to see it – except me. Now, I hoped, this error would be rectified.
So our caravan drove slowly through the little town of Moose Creek (yes really) with the eager eyes of passengers (and I suspect a few drivers, as well – but we were traveling pretty slow) scanning the likely perches for any signs of an owl. Not a feather did we find, despite crawling along so many small side roads that I began to worry that the locals would take us for kidney thieves or mobsters or possibly evil clowns.
Eventually we stopped and got the scoop from a local (friendly and confiding and not, that I could see, carrying any anti-clown weaponry on his person) who pointed out a few areas where the owl habitually roosted. We trudged up and down railroad tracks peering into coniferous trees, and followed the trail of the mighty herds of snowmobiles into fields. It was snowing a little.
Let me take a moment to talk about the snow. The English language has a serious inadequacy inasmuch as I am forced to use the same word to describe the cute thumb-sized gobs of frozen water cotton candy that blanketed New York last weekend and the tiny angry shards of ice that the wind carried like a switchblade that day. We stood in the field and trembled like poorly bred chihuahuas as a flock of snow buntings disappeared over a hill, probably laughing at us. The snow that was already on the ground had a frozen crust on it, cleverly calibrated to just barely not hold my weight. Eventually, even the lure of a potential Northern Hawk Owl could no longer hold people, and they began to drift back to the cars. Eventually, they became we, and back to the cars became driving away, and there was dispirited talk of lunch.
Then, on the main street out of Moose Creek, the entire caravan suddenly lurched to an awkward stop and we came tumbling out – still not like evil clowns – but like a group of birders who had just spotted the obscure object of desire on the top of a telephone pole. Speaking in hushed tones and crouching behind a handy building, we watched it sit, turn its head, hack up a pellet, and generally be an owl – in full view, giving fabulous looks, in the brazen (or actually more like silver in this instance) light of day.
“Now wait,” you may be saying to yourself at this point. “That sounds suspiciously like the climax of a narrative. Is this blogger – also a known fiction writer – creating a happy ending in a James Frey style? Has her Creative Nonfiction gotten too creative and not nonfictiony enough?”
Clever reader. I do love unreliable narrators; doesn’t everyone?
But in this case…. I have proof! Call me, Oprah!
We stared until the owl was thoroughly bored with us, then retreated to thaw out, refuel, and plan the next half of the day’s adventures.