Thursday, September 08, 2005


Sometimes, you just meet such characters.

The pair I'm thinking of would knock the crocodile hunter into oblivion if I could get them their own Animal Planet TV program. They're birders. And they have the single-minded obsession of the truly gifted. Ergo, they're blissfully crazy.

We have, on the one hand, the emotive Peruvian we'll call Ricardo. And his sidekick, the morose, wild-eyed bird afficionado we'll name Eric. They've traveled the world tracking birds and illustrating them. I'd always pictured bird watchers as rather benign, binocular-wearing, belted-trousers-up-to-the-chest sporting, middle-aged, retired salesman from Dubuque kind of folks. Well. Ricardo and Eric are the next generation of birders.

“So I was nineteen, living in south Florida.” Ricardo was telling us the genesis of his obsession with birds. “And I saw this mockingbird, only it wasn’t quite right. There was this dark area around the eye that was extremely unusual.”

At his side, Eric is nodding vigorously, knowing where the story is going, eager for the revelation.

Ricardo continued. “I realized, this was a Bahama Mockingbird! So I called the Audubon Hotline to report it. And I tell this guy, 'I saw a Bahama Mockingbird!' And he said, ‘How old are you?’ I said, ‘I am nineteen years old.’ He said, ‘you have seen a very young mockingbird.’ And I could not convince this fuck, what I saw!" Ricardo's arms sliced the air in front of him. He reddened. The wound was still raw. "So two days later I call the South Florica Tropical Bird Hotline. What do I hear?" He adopted a nasally twang and mimicked: “'Hello. You have reached the Audubon Society Tropical Bird Hotline. James Smith has spotted a Bahama Mockingbird on the Blablah Pier.’”

Ricardo shook his fists angrily in the air and his voice was quite loud. “I wanted to kill that fucking Audubon guy! I wanted to take every limb apart and fucking kill him!!!”

Eric cocked his head as he continued to examine his napkin laconically. He nodded. Yeah man. Fuckers.

"A-a-and...that's a wrap!" I thought, in the Animal Planet pilot in my mind.

Eric and Ricardo borrowed my pen and busied themselves sketching birds on napkins for the other to guess. Some they got instantly. And some sketches caused dissent. “No way man, the beak should curve up more here.” “Oh, yeah, you’re right.”

My friend joined in. At his family’s summer house in Ontario, there was some bird. He couldn’t remember what it was called, but whenever they appeared, his grandparents would become quite excited. Eric sensed a new challenge. “Ontario? They stayed in the grasses near the lake?” “No,” my friend replied. “They’d come right up to the feeder from the grasses.” This was enough information. Eric nodded slowly as the answer came and he smiled with dawning comprehension. “Ah. The Evening Grossbeak.” “Yes!” from my friend, excited. “Grossbeak! That’s it!” Eric returned to his sketching. The challenge done. “It’s a very special bird.”

“This guy has something really special,” Ricardo told us, indicating Eric. Something you can’t get from any university. He’s an amazing field specialist. He’s one of the best in the world.”

But Eric didn’t look so good. His eyes were red, his head was drooping and only aloft thanks to the support from his hands. He looked badly in need of some sort of fix, or as if he hadn’t slept in a millenium.

Ricardo glanced at him and shook his head. “When this guy got here, I told him. Take a good look at Tbilisi, man. You’re going to be buried here.”


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