It is impossible for me to tell someone about my favorite bird without breaking into a smile, sometimes even laughter. Whenever I miss being a full-time field biologist I think of the Mountain Bluebird, but not just any Mountain Bluebird, specifically the first one I ever saw. The sighting occurred at the end of a very challenging day.
I had gotten my truck stuck in the snow, and had dug it out, three times before finally stopping six miles from the location where I was going to survey for Great Gray Owls. This was not a problem; I had backcountry skis for exactly this scenario although I hadn’t yet learned how to use them. I buckled into my skis, put on my pack, and strapped my hiking boots onto one side of my pack and a bucket of mice to the other. I looped the strap of my bright yellow boom box (for broadcasting owl calls) over my shoulder and I started skiing.
I fell three times going down the first hill and was grateful to see a steady incline in front of me, figuring uphill would be easier and ignoring the fact that I would have to navigate down that same incline later in the day. By the time I reached my survey site I had only the lid of the mouse bucket, the rest had apparently been swallowed by the snow during one of my tumbles. I quickly realized that it would be impossible to track an owl to its nest tree because I could neither hike in these snow conditions nor ski through the forest without injury. Lacking mice and limited to the road, it was the only day in two seasons of surveys that I was grateful that I didn’t detect an owl. With the survey complete, I turned around to follow my tracks back to my truck.
I was making my way up the final hill, equally exhausted and frustrated, when a few feet in front of me there was a songbird the exact color of Crater Lake on a sunny day, perched on a barren shrub above the shimmering snow. I smiled, grateful to have found a profession where I could challenge myself in amazing places and see beautiful things every day. Although I did not hear an owl response that day, I later learned I had skied right by the nest tree and expect she had watched the entire spectacle unfold.