Grouse, Minnesota, February 15, 1997
in Southern California, where frost on the grass
was a novelty. For a winter treat people would
take their children to the mountains to see snow. We kids would pack
the white stuff onto the car's hood and bumpers and hope
to get back before it all melted so we could show our
Maybe that's the
reason that even though I now live in Iowa, I still think
winter is fun, and the deeper the snow, the better.
when I got a chance to join a group of birdwatchers
going to Minnesota for four days of winter birding,
I joyfully met them before dawn on a frozen morning and
headed toward Duluth, beside myself with anticipation
about finding the wonderful birds that can be seen only
in the far north during winter.
owls, for example, come into Minnesota in winter from the Arctic, and I longed to see one. It was on my list
of possible "life birds" that I might see for the first time in my life.
Why do birdwatchers want to see birds they've never seen before? For me, each bird is the embodiment
of the place in which it lives. Seeing a bird that lives in a far-off place,
I feel as if I've met the spirit of that place and made
friends with it.
the top of my Minnesota wish list was the spruce grouse,
a chicken-like bird that lives in the remote coniferous
forests of the far north. Spruce
grouse pass the summer on the mossy forest floor, eating
snowberries, fern tips, and the occasional spider. In
winter they stay up in the trees, where they live entirely on the needles of spruce and other conifers.
We had good luck in Minnesota.
We found a snowy owl, perched on
a tower at a power plant. I felt as if the bird had
brought the inaccessible Arctic with it, just far enough
south that we could meet it. The big white owl pivoted
its head around toward us, looked at us through half-closed
yellow eyes for 20 seconds, and then turned its gaze to
something else. It was a contact. It was enough.
the day three we'd found all the birds on my wish list except for the spruce grouse. For that we had
to leave the motel in Duluth long before daylight and
drive almost to the Canadian border.
dawn came up, I found a new use for a credit card, shaving
my frozen breath from the van windows in little slivers
and curls of ice. Peeking out through the ephemeral clear
places on the glass, I had my first glimpses of the great,
silent North Woods. Spruces, firs, and other
evergreens thickly engulfed us. Great looping branches
draped our views, and all were loaded with snow, drenched
in white. It was a frozen Forest Primeval. I felt as if I were in a Nordic myth.
been advised that the best time to find the grouse was
before 9 A.M. It's also the only time to avoid the traffic.
This forest is intensively logged, and during the
day logging trucks dominate the narrow, icy roads. We
hoped we would find the birds before the logging trucks
roads are an excellent place to see spruce grouse. Like many other
birds, spruce grouse eat small rocks, which lodge in their gizzard and
grind around with the food to break it down. After each
storm, when the roads are graded and sanded, the birds
come for the grit.
We drove slowly back and forth where
the grouse were said to live, but to no avail. Soon
the trucks came screaming down on us, shaking
our van as they passed. It would seem there was no room for them to
get by, but somehow they did, without ever slowing down. Life in a rifle barrel.
mid morning the sun was shining at us sideways through
every chink in the trees, and we were trying to get used
to the idea that we might not find our grouse.
suddenly there was a male spruce grouse,
in the middle of the road. We pulled over to the
side so everyone could get a look. We saw the
bright red comb above his eye, and the gleaming black
breast. Once everyone had seen the bird, we were about to get out and try for a closer look.
a logging truck came from behind and roared toward the poor grouse. "Fly away!" we
all shouted, but the bird pecked at the road without concern
as the truck bore down on it and concealed it from our
groaned, "Oh no, there goes my life spruce grouse!"
We watched with helpless horror until we knew there
was no chance for the bird to escape the truck
was too close, and moving too fast.
in myths, impossible things happen, and somehow the bird
was in the air above the truck, wings beating for the
woods, tail spread in a beautiful black fan with a light
band across the end like a ribbon. The field guides say
this band is chestnut, but with the morning sun shining
through it, I assure you, it was pure gold.
2006 Diane Porter
Photo of the Spruce Grouse is by Ralph Lieske,
who graciously allowed us to show it here. Click the photo
for a bigger picture.