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The Chase 

click to enlarge The black-chinned sparrow, a bird worth chasing after.

Photo by Rob Fowler

The black-chinned sparrow, a bird worth chasing after.

To "chase" in birding is to drop what you're doing and look for a bird that's been reported, usually a rarity of some sort. The majority of chases, at least for me, end in abject failure — birds have wings, after all, and hardly ever sit around waiting for throngs of admirers to show up with their binoculars and cameras.

So why do it? For that one infinitesimal shot at glorious, soul-satisfying success.

Several weeks ago, a black-chinned sparrow was spotted near Horse Mountain, only the second Humboldt County record of this small Southwestern species. As the news spread, a pilgrimage of birders headed into the hills to take a look. But for me, the drive was too long and the probability of finding the bird too remote. I decided it wasn't meant to be.

The next morning, I was on my way to the fish hatchery in Blue Lake when an update was posted: The sparrow was singing away at the same spot. Suddenly, I realized I'd sailed right past my exit, overcome by the thrill of the chase. Rain splattered the windshield and I pictured myself climbing out of the clouds into clear blue skies, sunshine and views to forever. The miles passed.

I'd put half the distance behind me when I noticed my fuel was on the low side, down to two bars. I did a quick calculation and decided I could just make it — my thrifty hybrid had never stranded me yet.

I was approaching Berry Summit when the gauge dropped to one bar. But sunshine and sparrow awaited me just a few miles away, so I pressed on. Clouds cloaked the summit but the rain had stopped. Minutes later, I made the turn off the highway.

For good measure, I pulled over and tapped the bird's location into my phone. A woman's voice told me to proceed south to my destination and gave me the number of miles. Her calm presence was just the encouragement I needed. I proceeded south.

The road was narrow and twisty, a steep climb with sheer drop-offs at the shoulders. Suddenly I found myself encased in fog so thick I couldn't see around the next bend. I slowed to a crawl, still climbing steadily. The pavement was slick with moisture and in places rocky scree covered the road.

"In 1,000 feet, turn right," my phone said.

I crept along, watching for my turn. After a while, I figured I'd traveled the requisite distance but there was only a bottomless drop on the right. My phone had gone strangely silent. I glanced at it — no service. I was on my own.

The fog grew thicker. I checked my odometer and realized I'd barely traveled a mile from the highway. As I watched, the last fuel bar vanished. I drove on gamely until the little gas pump icon began to flash, then pulled over and shut off the ignition.

I rolled down the window. The silence was all encompassing, unbroken by the chatter of birds. The tall spruces that covered the mountain slopes were black spires in the swirling fog. It felt as if I'd traveled back in time to a forest primeval. A flash of movement caught my eye — a gray squirrel pausing to stare from the trunk of a tree. It seemed to be telling me the chase was over.

I was almost to the highway when my phone suddenly came to life. "Take the next U-turn," the woman instructed me.

"Not this time," I said.

In another 100 feet she was back. "Take the next U-turn!" she said, sounding a little frantic. Maybe she was a birder, too.

I shut off the navigation and coasted home on fumes. Birders continued to report the sparrow, so a friend and I went back up there two days later. The fog was mostly gone, the views were spectacular and the birds were singing. But we didn't find the sparrow. Which leads me to one inescapable conclusion.

I should have taken that U-turn.

Sarah Hobart (she/her) is a freelance writer based in Humboldt County.

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