The moment I signed on as a participant in the Alberta Bird Atlas Project, I was no longer just a birdwatcher, content to wait for new species to appear on our acreage. I had become a bird hunter. My life for several weeks each spring was devoted to tracking down as many birds as possible in as many places as possible. My husband, a former boy scout, was concerned that I, a former city girl, would get into trouble in some out-of-the-way birding hot spot. Lost, injured and alone in the woods far from home.
With that scenario in mind, for my birthday he presented me with a fisherman’s vest, its many pockets loaded with survival tools. I was equipped for every emergency. I had waterproof matches in a watertight container, a whistle for summoning help, a compass (complete with a lesson on how to use it), a Swiss army knife, string and of course, a pencil and notebook for keeping track of all my birds.
What more could I need? Well, company would be nice so occasionally I dragged Bruce into the woods to see a particularly exciting bird. It was a Connecticut Warbler that was the cause of all the trouble one rainy Saturday morning.
This warbler had been singing in the same location for over a week and I just knew Bruce would be thrilled to see it, even though he doesn’t much care for warblers. So off we went, through a black spruce bog, across a cow pasture, around a willow swamp and into the poplar grove where the bird had staked out his territory. But we found no warbler. We listened, we looked, we waited patiently. But no warbler. Discouraged and wet, we retraced our steps back to the car.
Halfway through the black spruce bog I realized that Bruce was no longer at my side. He had veered off to the right and now I could hardly hear the sound of his footsteps in the soft bog moss. With smug female superiority I thought, “Hah! He thinks the car is in that direction but I know better. I wonder how long it will take him to figure out his mistake?”
I was correct, of course. I emerged from the woods right beside the car and settled down to wait, smirk firmly in place. It was approaching lunch time so when the waiting dragged on a little too long, I started to get impatient. I thought about honking the car horn to direct him back in the right direction but he had the car keys and the doors were all locked. Then I remembered the whistle tied to my vest so I blew on the whistle for a while but that did not draw Bruce out of the woods. I had the survival kit but I wasn’t the one who was missing.
By this time I was becoming really concerned and I knew I had to do something, so back into the bog I went. I methodically crossed the bog from one end to the other in a zigzag pattern, calling frantically and peering through the trees for some sign of his bright yellow rain slicker. I had convinced myself that Bruce must be unconscious (or worse), having tripped over a log and impaled himself on a branch. Or perhaps he had been attacked by an angry cow moose defending her calf. The thought that he might have gotten lost never crossed my mind, for how could he get lost when we were such a short distance from the road?
It was time to call in the cavalry, so I trudged the half mile down the road to the nearest farm and telephoned the RCMP. They reassured me that he would turn up eventually and apologized for the fact that a rescue could not be undertaken for at least 24 hours, no matter the circumstances. “Calm down, ma’am, and call us back tomorrow if he’s still missing.”
I headed back to the car and did the only thing I could think of; I sat down and had a good cry. But sure enough, a few hours later I noticed a bright yellow spot coming down the road, very weary but very much alive. Poor Bruce had become disoriented in the woods and headed for the cars he could hear on a nearby highway. Two miles in the opposite direction.
In the course of his travels he had crossed some of the most inhospitable terrain imaginable: swamps, ponds, willow thickets and spruce bogs, emerging from the woods like the Swamp Thing, right into a farm yard where a woman was working. He waved politely, then kept on walking around on the roads to where I was waiting by the car.
We can look back on the adventure now and laugh but you can bet we are both a little more careful when we go into the woods after elusive warblers.
Donna Wakeford, Carvel, Alberta, Canada