We scrutinized the round head, the tiny bill, the short neck, the dark breast: It was a Cackling that had flown in and joined the tame birds. It was something of a rarity, and we noticed how handsome the plumage was, the shape, the pattern. And only as an afterthought realized how handsome the virtually identical big Canadas were.
This morning it was sunny and clear, and we set out looking for a snowy owl. We drove country roads in western Craighead and eastern Jackson counties between the Cache and Black Rivers, open wet fields full of raptors in winter, suggesting abundant prey is available. Almost immediately we came to a huge field completely covered with snow geese, some unimaginable number of tens of thousands. They were close to the road and I stopped carefully to avoid setting them off, and we scanned the flock quickly. Lined up along one side were a number of Ross's geese, getting commoner these days but still a little bit special. Down at one end were a few white-fronted geese, keeping to themselves. Otherwise there was nothing but endless snow geese, so we drove on.
There were the usual shrikes, kestrels, harriers (virtually all males this day), and one redtail after another, in all their different plumages. We tuned them out, concentrating instead on every white bleach bottle or white plastic bag on the far sides of the fields.
Of course I knew what the odds were. There very possibly were two or three snowy owls in the state at the moment, but most likely they were coming down the Arkansas River Valley from Oklahoma. They wouldn't be up here.
We were passing by flooded fields, one chock-a-block with shovelers, the next with pintails. We were scrutinizing little white chimneys perched on top of distant farm machines. In the morning we had gone first to the southern part of our area, now we were returning along a northern route, and pulled up overlooking empty fields to eat our lunch. Miles to the south of us must have been that spot where we had seen all the snow geese. Either someone had stopped his car and walked out to them, or perhaps an eagle had flown low over them, anyway there was a sudden dark cloud of them, too far away to see individuals, but it was the entire mass. It gained elevation, then spread out in a long line across the horizon like dissipating smoke.
We chewed on our sandwiches, and when we looked again they must have turned because now they were coming towards us. When they got close enough to see as individuals, we looked with our binoculars and they had already set their wings in a glide. They were going to land right in front of us. It was a very gradual lengthy process. First they continued rising higher and higher, then they began circling like the world's biggest wash basin beginning to drain. Out of the bottom of the vortex individual geese began spilling out, corkscrewing crazily towards the ground. The bravest (or most foolhardy) geese had already hovered and then dropped the last few feet to the ground while the wariest were still rising into the clouds.
The solid tide of white spread across the ground towards us and took shape, all the white-fronts in rows closest to us, the snows behind them in family groups with the grayish youngsters. All necks were raised stiffly, then one by one they dropped their heads to graze.
We finished our lunch and I drove off as carefully as I could, but even so those massed nearest us leaped into the air with a concussive sound. Cheryl snapped some pictures out the window as we drove through them. I could see them in the mirror circling back and landing.
Now all owls are beautiful, and snowys perhaps even more so with their huge yellow eyes and trusting childlike expression, and here they have the special value of being supreme rarities. But I'm thinking back to when we lived in Washington state before moving here, and a few snowys showed up every winter, and in a big year you could stand in one place and count a hundred. When I drove to work in the morning I would notice them on their various fence posts, but I didn't bother to stop and put the binoculars on them. What I'm trying to say is, a flock of tens of thousands of snow geese circling into a rice field from a great height, or starting up in a brief panic, must be the greatest and most beautiful avian spectacle in Arkansas, but we would turn our backs on it in a second if, say, a dull winter-plumaged golden-crowned sparrow turned up.
"Cheryl," I said. "Do you know what I've just realized: the redtail is the most beautiful hawk in North America!"