Spots Before the Eyes
FIeld editor Kenn Kaufman set out to break a big year record in 1973, the year that he turned 19, by hitch-hiking around North America.
That night I got into New Jersey, got to within a hundred miles of Brigantine - but I was so tired. Little lightning flashes were going off inside my eyelids, and the rain came down like thunder, as if it would smash everything into the muddy ground. Finding a bridge at a highway interchange, I crawled under it and curled up into a catatonic cocoon, thinking, This is it: the deluge. The European birds are heading to New Jersey to gather for the second voyage of Noah's Ark, because the great flood is coming again. Isn't there some city around here called New Ark? The sound of rain drummed me off to sleep.
When I awoke, the rain had stopped. Crawling from beneath the bridge, I saw that dawn was breaking, and the sky was completely clear. Of course: weather fronts move from west to east across the continent. I had been traveling right along with a rainy system, which I could have escaped any time by waiting a day for the front to move on. Live and learn. Feeling reprieved, I thumbed on down toward Brigantine. After a few quiet rides and a fair amount of walking, I arrived at the Brigantine refuge headquarters about nine in the morning.
...Arrived on foot, asking myself, Where are all the cars? Very few were there. Today, with the added lure of the Spotted Redshank, the place should have been packed. Perhaps the bird had flown. Even so, many die-hard birders would have hung around, searching the refuge, hoping it would reappear. I took off my backpack and walked into the visitor information booth.
The guest book for the past few days read like a Who's Who of birding. Knowing where many of these people lived, I could almost see the circle widening as the news spread - local birders on Saturday, mid-Atlantic crowd on Sunday, and then on into the week with other observers arriving from farther and farther away. Harold Axtell had even come down from Ontario. Of course, Dr. Axtell enjoyed new life birds just as much as any of us; he would have rushed down here with the crowd, hoping for a glimpse of the Spotted Redshank.
No, I corrected myself, not just hoping for a glimpse. Axtell would have come to examine the bird carefully, to study it at length before he decided to enter it on his life list. Sure enough - checking the dates in the guest book, I saw that Axtell had arrived Monday and stayed for four days. It was reassuring that someone so careful was following along, applying the final stamp of approval, even when the bird was so unmistakable as this one.
Turning from the guest register to the Recent Sightings clipboard, I found one of the most amazing documents of 1973.
An entire page was filled - crammed - with Harold Axtell's neat, precise handwriting. Everything he said he stated clearly. But the point he made was so startling that I had to read the page twice to understand completely.
He had arrived on Monday and soon encountered that which he sought: a large, blackish shorebird, the focus of the attention for a line of telescopes and a gaggle of excited birders. So Axtell had settled in to study it. The situation was made more complicated because the bird kept moving around the extensive marshes and mudflats of Brigantine. But after a couple of days, Axtell had seen enough to be convinced.
Convinced that the bird was not a Spotted Redshank.
Diplomatically worded, Dr. Axtell's written explanation still left no room for doubt. A Spotted Redshank, he said, should exhibit a touch of red at the base of the bill; on this Brigantine bird, the bill showed no trace of such red. The bird's legs were a non-conclusive color - they only looked red in the low-angled rays of the evening sun; under normal daylight, they appeared a stained yellow. The molt did not seem to be proceeding in the right sequence; this bird was still blackish underneath, but not elsewhere. Bill shape was not quite right, flight pattern was all wrong, looking more like that of a Greater Yellowlegs. In size and shape the bird was disturbingly identical to the yellowlegs with which it sometimes associated.
True, wrote Axtell, its behavior was not quite typical for a yellowlegs. But its actions reminded him of something he had seen before: other waterbirds, suffering from encounters with petroleum products. In short, Axtell's conclusion was that this mystery shorebird, with its blackish feathers, odd colored legs, and strange behavior, was merely a yellowlegs that had gotten into some oil.
Standing there reading and rereading this bombshell, I was in shock. So the "unmistakable bird" had been a mistake.
No wonder there are no birders here today, I thought. Axtell's declaration had been written Thursday. The news would have gone out immediately, I supposed, probably spreading faster than had the news of the bird's initial discovery. All over the East, birders would have begun hotly defending their original identification, or grimly erasing the Spotted Redshank from their life lists. On this Saturday morning, I imagined, many of these birders had decided to wash the car, or catch up on yard work, or go birding anywhere at all except Brigantine.
No one was ever able to make a strong case that Axtell was wrong. One countertheory claimed that both an oiled yellowlegs and a genuine Spotted Redshank had been on the refuge at the same time; and given the great size and potential of Brigantine, this was not impossible. But the general conclusion was that Harold Axtell had been right and that dozens of other birders had been wrong.
This episode had a profound impact on me - partly because I'd spent five days hitching in the rain, 2,500 miles out of my way. But there was more than that.