In my art it's been the longest-sought birds, special to a kind of habitat, that I've wanted to paint--because I went all that distance on all those forays to try and find the bird, and on finding it had to linger indefinitely to see its most obvious, its subtle and tucked-away markings, all that I could see in the time I had. Sometimes too I did birds I had never expected to see even if the habitat where I found them was theirs. The drawing and detailing of that bird was the thrill of discovery, through eyes and ears, all pulled out on paper, in wet and dry media in a blended effect that seemed best for bringing back that bird in a setting as true as I could conjure. But what I'd make of the garganey, seen on April 27th at the first corner off the main route leading north from the Crex Meadows Visitor Center outside Grantsburg, Wisconsin is less likely to be a painting, though I wouldn't say absolutely it won't be.
The garganey is a Eurasian teal like our blue-winged, green-winged and cinnamon teal in North America. The teal are small ducks of creeks, puddles and shallow lakes. The garganey in North America is a repeated vagrant that courts and shares feeding ground, as this one did in Wisconsin, with native teal like the blue-winged.
When I drove southward from Minnesota last wet and blustery Sunday to find this garganey, a species entirely new to me, I knew I would encounter a lot of other birders. As I drove, the little car entered ever more rain and slued about in the winds of mid-continent and of neighboring, much bigger vehicles. I was impatient with excitement. At Crex Meadows conditions were of the harshest kind found in spring, with the exception of spring snowstorms, for viewing birds; we all stayed in our cars unless a certain bird ID could only be made by stepping out. I rolled to and fro over the same stretches of hardpan road gone to muck, wondering at a clunk-clunk-clunk sounding from the right rear tire. The wipers churned, raindrops rolled on the glass, and as I kept turning around in pull-outs or U turns I grew increasingly dizzy. I blamed a coffee and an American-style frosted cinnamon roll for that discomfort, like a kind of motion sickness.
A man I had met once before was staked out in his little car just a few steps above what's termed the Erickson Flowage, one of the diked canals that the state of Wisconsin maintains for aquatic wildlife; there, he said, was where the garganey had been earlier this morning, foraging with a couple of blue-winged teal. In an hour or so the garganey flew in with two or more blue-winged teal companions and afforded intimate looks, while it drifted seemingly unbothered by the nearness of stopped cars with drivers discreetly sheltered and enclosed. I stole out and around to the trunk of my car to bring out my spotting scope and beamed it on the bird. Because the vertigo by then was attempting a take-over I may have looked a little drunken to the other drivers, even as the shivers were getting hold of me. I wished I had worn something with a hood and was glad of a pair of knit gloves that live year-round in the car.
Not much later I vomited out the door of the car onto the road, a first vomit in twenty or so years. I found it rather rich to be throwing up at the scene of a life bird species still calmly about its business in the waterway below. Having seen the exquisite body markings of the garganey through the scope I craved a look at its open wings but dared not spoil the scene for others including the ducks by any approach on foot. When the ducks eventually rose to fly on their own they were facing all of us, so I got a glimpse of pale grey wing surface high up on the outer side. By now I was so dizzy I could hardly bear to sit up in the driver's seat. Grantsburg, I thought, had an urgent care but I wasn't precise on how to find it. For lack of any better idea, not in my sharpest state of mind, I called 911 for assistance rather than trouble any of the other parked birders. On two calls to 911 I asked for an escort if possible rather than an actual ambulance, though in the next few minutes accepted my first-ever ambulance ride, since an escort seemed unheard-of when I asked the first responder for one. I might if allowed have flopped fish-like on my own onto the gurney but was helped aboard by my rescuers. All kinds of recent events have taught me to be in awe of emergency responders, who are a varied lot of individuals just as artists are and no doubt include some artists. Trained rescuers have their protocols. I've yet to receive the bill for the deductible but expect it will include a sum for my little ride of two to three miles.
I was checked out that night as a healthy adult female with norovirus. I got sick again, much more dramatically, inside the van of the emergency-care nurse who drove me the couple of blocks to the Wood River Motel for the night. But that night's sleep, Zofran gels and a delicious can of 7-Up quelled the symptoms for the time being and I was by next morning back out to the T of two roads where the old Prius had stayed parked for the night. I was kindly given a ride there by the motel proprietor. The same poor visibility reigned in that ongoing tempest of a winter that does not want to let go its hold on this north central region; it lambasted the few cars of Monday morning birders hoping for a sighting to start the week. Few to no ducks dabbled within seeing range and I thought better than to step forth into that wet cold again.
There had been little to no poetry to this particular quest, but rather determination, surmise and restraint rewarded by luck. So I do not feel a painting being born of the two-day escapade, but look at it with a half-and-half mixture of satisfaction plus regret that I could not sit up and await an opportunity to see my quarry lift off in the opposite direction and show me his beautiful silver and green wings. That would have made the experience whole. But as other birders worthy of the utmost respect have said, that's birding, which at its best includes common courtesy. Maybe the garganey will do a spring sojourn at Crex and I will get by there again en route to the big city.