It was decided on a whim. On an empty stomach, too. I had downed half a bottle of sake w/ Mark Field after my Toronto Ornithological Club meeting and I was blathering on about something, when I stopped and blurted out that, aw heck, Imma gonna get dat der goose tomorry!
By 1:30am, I had a Zipcar booked for 8am-1pm, checked my savings account balance to remind myself how irresponsible I was being, read directions to Whitby Harbour, and packed my gear (including a celebratory chocolate heart for when I saw the bird).
Alarm blaring, I think, Oh, to be alive! Here I am w/ a day off and I've got ample time to fly out to Whitby Harbour, see the Greater White-fronted Goose and knock off a couple of easy year birds, drive back to Toronto w/ an easy grin on my face listening to easy rock and then easing into a nice afternoon nap. Easy.
8am roles around and I'm stepping into a Zipcar that has dog prints splattered around the backseat and crumbs of pastry strewn across the upholstery in places that seam impossible (how does one eat so ravenously to get a croissant flake stuck to the backside of a rearview mirror...?)
I stop myself from sighing, still too early in the day to let something this minor get me down. Inspired by the car's previous renter, I buy my own croissant from starbucks to add to his/her mess and have my first coffee of the day.
I love the 401. Open road, Adele blasting constantly because she won every Grammy award, counting Red-tailed Hawks. Perhaps overexcited, I spotted the word, "Brock" and immediately swerved off the highway and followed the road straight south just like instructed on the Ontbirds posting. I saw a sign for Pickering. Hmmm. Odd. Pickering is before Whitby. Pickingering is before Ajax and Ajax is before Whitby. What the...? Ohhh this is Brock Road, not Brock street. Jeepers Crow. Brakes slammed before entering a nuclear facility and I'm flying back to the 401. I'm still making ok time but I know the window of opportunity is short before the geese at Whitby Harbour leave for the day to feed.
I'm now picking off croissant flakes from the seat of the car and eating them, hoping that they're my own and not the last renter's dog's. Seeing the Brock Street exit, I calmly head south once again and drive exactly to the spot described on Ontbirds. Except, this can't be right...the only bird I see is a crow walking around the feet of a woman smoking a cigarette staring at me like I'm a morsel of food. I open my mouth to ask about the goose but decide against it and slowly back away, get in the car, and never look back.
When I finally do reach where I want to be, I see a group of birders who are no doubt looking at the thing. Ah good, an easy bird for once. This will be nothing like Western Grebe. Funny thing is, I already have Greater White-fronted Goose on my Ontario list but I'm a greedy lister nowadays. Year lists are becoming ever more important to me. And I haven't seen one in years. So I want this bird.
I walk up to them. "It just flew," comes the response. After 16 years of this hobby, you'd think I'd be used to this phrase but even when I'm 99 years old and hobbling up to a group of young bucks who have a Prairie Warbler and I think to myself, well, this might be the last Prairie Warbler I ever see so I better enjoy it, and someone in the group says, "it just flew," I will still want to crack my skull open w/ my own binoculars.
Well, it actually just flew over to a field right next to the harbour. No big deal. It's still here. It's just in w/ a flock of 5 kajillion Canadas. It's only a matter of patiently scanning. Another man who didn't get to the spot in time (I wonder if he also encountered Crow Lady) walked ahead of me toward the field. I hesitated. I thought of asking him if we should maybe try looking from here. I hesitated too long. I followed him. I stopped. He didn't. I continued. I slowed down. Oh god, I thought, these geese are starting to look wary. I prayed the man would stop walking. An alarm honk. My body's cold but my forehead is sweating anyway. He's still walking. I balk. Are those 2 feet really going to make a difference? The geese nearest to us are walking faster. I think of the birders behind us, glaring at us and cursing our existence. "Well, I never! I guess it only matters that they see the bird," the birders think. I know they think this because I can read their minds. My reputation teeters on a knife edge. My fists clench. A wing is raised. I ever so slowly extend one leg of my spotting scope.
Thousands of geese have taken to the air, feathers and excrement dropping every which way and birds flying in scattered V's in every direction! I pinch the bridge of my nose between my fingers, head lowered. I walk back to the group of birders in shame and wait for the first admonishment. I expect to be reprimanded but secretly hope to hear, "can you believe that photographer on the other side of the field that stirred all the geese up?!" In my mind, I know I'm not really to blame. But that's not what it looks like. I wanted to walk across the parking lot to a different vantage point but I followed this guy in front of me right into the flock instead. I didn't think he'd walk that close.
Ohhh cruel world! The very first words I hear are that the entire flock flew because of the quick movement I made extending my scope leg. Eyes follow me w/ hatred as I slowly walk down the boat ramp into the icy water to perish. A hand lands on my shoulder. They've forgiven me! Oh, wonderful saints! I turn to see the angel who is pulling me back. But the group stands meters away, all of them waiting for me to enter the water. One of the birders crosses his arms and taps his foot. Another looks at her watch. Another lines up my forehead in the crosshairs of his gun. The forgiving hand was only my scope handle.
Perhaps a Boston Cream will bring me out of this funk. I'm told the flock comes back between noon and 2pm and there is a field of baseball diamonds just north of the harbour where large groups of geese fly to to feed in the late morning. I grab lunch and a coffee and take a drive to the ball diamonds. There are hundreds of geese. This is it.
An hour later, it dawns on me. This is not it. Not even a Cackling Goose.
My mood darkens. I meet Jean Iron who arrived in the late morning to check the area. We look together and are joined by Pat Hodsgon. We scan the same geese a hundred times but have to submit to the fact that if the bird was here we'd see it. I mean, those bright orange legs would be a giveaway. On a side note, I love listening to Jean. She's so passionate and always sincerely wants people to see the bird they've come to see. And I don't think I've ever not learned an identification tip in her presence. The last time I saw her, all we said to each other was, "hello" and yet I still took away something about gulls in juvenile plumage.
I look everywhere. I give up. I look everywhere again. I go over to Tim Horton's and buy my third coffee. An employee smiles at me and says, "Hi Jeremy, how can I help you this time?" I extend my Zipcar rental. I look for the goose again. I give up. When the thought of checking the ball diamonds again enters my mind I throw up my hands and yell to myself, "GIVE UP, YOU CLOD!!" I finally take my own advice.
Well, the day wasn't a complete waste, mind you. This Greater White-fronted Goose chase marks a historical moment in my birding career. It is officially the most money I have ever spent on a missed bird. So take THAT, goose.
Upon arriving at my apartment, I reach into my pocket to get my keys. I pull out a chocolate heart. Happy Valentine's Day indeed.