The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Friday, August 23, 2002

Perils Of The Mutual Life List
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, August , 2002, © 2004

"Did you see it?" "No, it flew just as I got my binoculars on it!"

My wife Sharron and I often have this exchange when we encounter a "Life Bird." Most people know this is the term for a species which you are seeing for the first time, one you can add to your Life List. It's somewhat like checking off countries when you travel, collecting autographs of movie stars and athletes, or playing different golf courses around the world. Very early we discovered a common interest in these beautiful and mysterious creatures, thanks to parents who encouraged a love of nature. We began birding, or birdwatching, as the sport was once called, agreeing to have a mutual life list instead of competing. In other words, we both have to see the bird and its best field marks in order to count it. I have to say that we have many other things in common, although there are exceptions. She doesn't like science fiction. I am not interested in playing bridge. We have continued to bird for almost 40 years of sharing some great experiences in nature.

However, these rules of the game have led to moments of panic and desperation...what every marriage needs, of course. One of the early examples occurred in the Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia, a haunting place of quaking land and lush scenery. From the car, I spotted our first Summer Tanager whisking down a dark trail of jungle-like vegetation. "I didn't see it," she lamented. "Go get it!" I barked, and she disappeared from view. Returning a minute later, she wore an expression I had seen before. There was something wrong. Through her gritted teeth came, "Yes, I saw it, but I had to crawl over a sign that said, 'Trail closed...poisonous snakes!' "

But we got the bird.

On another trip, while driving the picturesque roads of Marin County north of San Francisco, I glimpsed a dark vision in a roadside bush. A lifer! A Black Phoebe. "I missed it," she said. I pulled into a side road, and she got out and followed my directions toward the bird. Abruptly she dropped to one knee! I thought, "She's going to pray for it." Then I realized that she had gone through a wider-than-usual cattleguard up to her hip! Extraction was not easy, but she made it, and a daily ice pack enabled us to finish what was a long and enjoyable trip. It could have been a disaster.

But we got the bird.

At this point I should stress that she often sees the quarry first. Her acute hearing is an advantage: she can detect the chip note of a warbler before the bird hears itself. I also remember her sightng a tiny five-inch Elf Owl in a tree in southeastern Arizona as darkness fell, beating the professional tour leaders to the call. In another instance, she was the first in a small group of birders to spot the exotic Black-tailed Gull which had been reproted at the Brownsville landfill. It was in a shallow pool right in front of us 30 feet away. We had just overlooked it. After it flew, I had to resort to scoping it in a swirling mass of other gulls.

Then there was the ultimate crisis concerning our 600th species. It was during a trip on Monterey Bay. The surface was gently rippling. There was no storm in sight, and we were in a fifty-foot pelagic tour boat. Usually, Sharron does not get seasick, having been raised by a fisherman father from the big lakes of Michigan. Ah, but she was intimidated by the warnings of the guide and swallowed Dramamine. It made her very ill...and groggy. That was when the milestone of birding appeared --- a Rhinoceros Auklet gracing the current. This was the BIG moment. I gently but firmly shook Sharron's head as it hung there next to me. She lifted up like a boxer coming to on a 9-count, weakly raised her binoculars and aimed in the general direction. She saw it and sagged back to sleep.

But we got the bird.

Sometimes it's my turn. We were being driven around Montana's wonderful Gallatin Valley searching for new grassland birds. I was in the passenger seat, and Sharron was right behind me in the back. We came upon a pond decorated by a striking pair of Cinnamon Teals, our first. Bang! I found myself pushed forward with my nose against the dashboard as she bolted from the car. I can only guess she did not want to be accused of saying again, "I didn't see it!"

I confess that these were rare events in all the years we have been together. Most of the time we see target birds at the same time. I don't mean to disparage competitive arrangements, because they can be fun, but if you and your mate-for-life would like to have a mutual life list, I might say, "the couple that birds together"......but I won't. That would be corny....just avoid cattleguards.


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