Sunday, March 14, 2010

A day of blunders

No force in heaven or on earth could have brought anyone out into the monstrous weather of Saturday, March 13th in Toronto. A sensible (sane) human being would have taken one look at the weather forecast and hid in fear under warm covers, sanctuary, subsequent comfort and a content smile under a mountain of warm sheets, hours passing dreaming of a summer afternoon, green meadows, rainbow flowers, wet footprints evaporating on poolside flagstones, birdsong and cicadas.

Instead, Mark Field and I (for his sake, I will conceal his identity and call him Jeb from now on to protect him from mockery, and perhaps shame, from his family and friends) stumbled out into the morning grayness, two dopes with high hopes, the thought of new spring migrants tugging at the centre of their bodies, moving them forward against reason's will. Environment Canada predicted 30% chance of showers until 10a.m., then onto 90% by 10:01a.m., and then the y axis of the graph just wasn't high enough, percentages only going to 100, you see. We tried other weather stations to see if perhaps the dependable EC could be wrong, but all other reports just told readers to not be stupid and stay inside.

Our morning began with a missed bus. Heavy with gear, we ran toward the bus screaming out to the driver who, in seeing a fumbling pile of binoculars and galoshes approaching, looked back from his rear-view, eyes wide with horror, foot to the pedal, tires of the bus squealing sending exhaust and sharp stones into our faces as it peeled out of High Park station. Perhaps I exaggerate slightly but that's certainly how it felt. We trudged around High Park, waiting for the next bus that would eventually take us to our destination...or past our destination rather, as we missed our stop. We had arrived, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at Lambton Woods.

From a large bridge overlooking the park, we could see a trail next to the Humber River, which on any other day innocently winds through the park with calm, clear water where folks take peaceful canoe rides and Mallards rest on its surface, raising cups of tea to their beaks and discussing poetry. Today, the river looked like something out of a disaster film, brown raging waters filled with dead things and debris. I looked for destroyed homes floating by. Daring to overthrow science's studies of human intelligence, we decided, since we could see no other trails, to descend down a muddy rock-slide that seemed to connect to the river-abutting trail at its base. Our boots now weighed down by mud clumps and slashed by razor-sharp rocks, we finally were able to start birdwatching. Not even a starling was present.

Dedicated, we persisted. Eventually we found signs of life: a robin, a few chickadees and juncos, and 2 White-breasted Nuthatches. Our spirits rose infinitesimally. We saw Mallards and pigeons. We got colder. The sky grew more ominous. We grumbled. I felt something moving around in my rubber boot and figured one of my toes must have fallen off. I started to look in my pockets for paper and a pen to scribble down my will. Jeb searched his bag for a flare gun and rescue.

And then, we arrived at a spot that made the day at least somewhat worth the battle. A little oasis out of the wind where I immediately saw my first grackle of the year (second actually, but Jeb missed the first one I saw so I'll just pretend this was our shared first). House Sparrows and Mourning Doves abounded, both Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers popped out, giving a great size comparison, a Red-tailed Hawk flew over, my first Red-winged Blackbirds made an appearance, some Blue Jays flew through, and a Song Sparrow, bringing light to an otherwise dark day, lived up to its name and sang its heart out. The despondent dirge of the morning lifted for a time. A short time.

The weather decided to test us even more. After picking up a couple of American Black Ducks for our day list at a small pond at the park's north entrance (small pleasures), we took a break to have a coffee, a bite to eat, and to count our day list. The day list tally taking perhaps 3 seconds to complete, we took off for Humber Bay Park, a bizarre decision that only a deranged lunatic could possibly make. Rain falling in horizontal sheets, we dashed to the subway to catch another bus. The driver muttered something at us as we slopped off the bus, two wet rats on a death march toward the unforgiving swells and waves crashing against the lakeshore. Not a bird could be seen except a few mangled gulls struggling against fierce winds, sending bloody feathers in all directions.

Freezing rain like shards of broken glass pierced our faces and punctured our eyes, the salt of our tears burning raw skin. Rushing water raged at our ankles, a car was lifted off its tires and sucked into the maelstrom. I expected a cow to fly past in the wind but didn't see any. I may have heard a distant, terrified moo though. Still we fought onward. It may be that with these strong east winds, the ducks are taking shelter in the western bay, I suggested. I looked over my shoulder to see if the grim reaper was looming behind me. Then we reached the breaking point. That time where you finally realize what you're doing and where you are. Reality sets in and even the birds can't keep you going. You think to yourself, alright even I think this is crazy.

Standing between us and the next section of the park was a wide expanse of brown muck. Already sopping wet, we decided to try to cross it rather than swing back all the way around the trail we had just came from. Always the gentleman, I let Jeb cross first. Then, thinking my brain had finally snapped, Jeb started shrinking before my very eyes! Wait, not shrinking...sinking. I looked down and saw wet mud oozing over his boots. I pushed forward to try to lend a hand and found myself now sinking into the mud as well, a mad image entering my mind of a dog-walker sauntering through the park in the spring, tripping over the rib of one of our half-buried corpses, decaying faces still stuck in grotesque sneers, the dog beginning to chew at the fleshy remains of my skull. I took out my cell with plans of calling my mom to tell her I loved her before the mud went over my head, my hand still grasping the phone above the ground, its signal lost in the storm. By some miracle, we finally trudged through nature's death trap and dragged our bodies inch by inch back to the park's entrance.

Somehow, beyond belief, we managed to continue birding. Every atom in the universe was telling us to stop but my right hand was twitching for more year birds...and by golly we actually saw some. Our hands frozen to our binoculars, we found Trumpeter Swans, Long-tailed Ducks, Gadwall, Mallards and American Black Ducks, American Wigeon, Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Red-breasted Mergansers, and Herring and Ring-billed Gulls. Finally giving up, we made our way to the streetcar and called it a day, looking forward to the next chance to birdwatch, no situation too awful to ever stop the insanity.

Our day's list (in no discernible order):

Ring-billed Gull
Canada Goose
Northern Cardinal
Blue Jay
Dark-eyed Junco
Black-capped Chickadee
European Starling
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Hairy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
American Black Duck
House Sparrow
Common Grackle (FOY)
Red-winged Blackbird (FOY)
Song Sparrow
Red-tailed Hawk
Common Goldeneye
Trumpeter Swan
Mute Swan
Long-tailed Duck
Red-breasted Merganser
American Widgeon (FOY)

Total Species: 26

Running Year Total: 61 (pretty measly but I missed the month of January...didn't even birdwatch once during that month!)

1 comment:

Blake A. Mann said...

Excellent story.
Like I always say, birders are a strange lot!
BTW, weather will be nice all week, then cold and rainy for next weekend....