Saturday, October 18, 2008

His life really is for the birds

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, birding, bird watching, conservation

During the years I studied Geology as an undergraduate, I had a travel friend, a fellow-student who did most of the driving on our many field trips. He always carried two sets of binoculars, because it was a sure thing that any drive we took, we'd be stopping at least a time or two to watch birds. We always planned an extra hour or so for any drive we took. While I enjoy watching birds, particularly with a knowledgeable companion, I was never hooked by the birding bug.

Luke Dempsey got hooked, and hooked hard, the first time a friend induced him to actually look at what a little bird was doing. It was a Common Yellowthroat, one of the warblers, and once he looked at it, really looked, it was love at first sight. Dempsey reports the event in the opening pages of A Supremely Bad Idea: Three Mad Birders and Their Quest to See It All. He goes on to note, he was in love, "But I didn't really want this kind of love."

His premonition was correct, but futile. Though he doesn't come right out and say it, the flow of events he records made it clear that birding had a lot to do with the failure of his marriage. In the wake of that failure, with a bit more time on his hands, he gradually embarked on a quest to see many, most...perhaps all the birds that inhabit, pass through, or touch some corner of the United States. He's halfway there.

[Image and its larger original Copyright Fotosearch.] I wonder what might have been, had his wife become a bird watcher also. He graciously fails to reveal hardly anything about her. I imagine someone a bit like my son: it isn't hard to get him to peer through the binoculars at a bird for, say, ten seconds, whereupon he looks you in the eye saying, "Cool. Now what?"

He does the same when induced to look through my telescope at craters on the Moon, the rings of Saturn, or the Whirlpool Galaxy. Once he's seen it, he doesn't "need" to see it again...ever. Oh, well, he has turned into a much better poet than I am, and has a number of other virtues that I find quizzical, to say the least. We're even.

But we were talking about this author, and his travel and birding companions Don and Donna. In the Acknowledgments section I found that they are "mostly a product of [his] fevered imagination." There is another couple, Dave and Deb, with whom he also seems to have traveled. The "Don and Donna Graffiti" of the book are composite characters, with a large dollop of said imagination.

I rarely quote a jacket blurb, but I have to now. This is probably the product of Amy King, the designer: "3 obsessive friends, / 8 states, / 1 foreign country, / 129 towns, / 34 national parks, / 6 long-suffering rental cars, one rather alluring OnStar navigator, / 17 bed-and-breakfasts, too many alarming motel rooms, 1 real-life ark, / and more than 400 species of birds..."

It took me a while to get used to the author's style, a mixture of understated British humor (he hails from England) and over-the-top Stateside comedy. Learning curve aside, we read of the travails of compiling, in about three years, the life list of a solid beginner, with nearly 450 entries. This is a bit less than half the birds one might see in North America.

But he is not, he says a few times, a "lister"; he feels charged "with witnessing them all over again, while we can." It is one thing to see, at least once, an Elegant Trogon or Kirtland's Warbler. It is quite another to see a Yellowthroat, Robin, Chickadee or Blue Jay, over and over again and sustain one's relish at their lives and actions, the sheer alertness most birds continually convey. After all, though God may feed the sparrows, the sparrows do have to work at it themselves, for nearly every waking minute. It is not God but Human expansion that makes it harder and harder to gather a long life list of bird species. The book has a strong conservationist tone, and a bit of well-needed exhortation.

Listing, Birding, Bird Watching, or just the occasional stroll with binoculars in hand (to take them in descending order of fanaticism), all have their satisfactions. Choosing to travel about the country for birding's sake is as good an excuse as any. I'd like to see 34 national parks, for any reason!

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