Spots Before the Eyes
Excerpted from Kingbird Highway, published by Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston. Copyright © 1997 by Kenn Kaufman, and still available in paperback. All rights reserved.
Following our Mexican trip I had gone to the Chiricahua Mountains, where I had picked up White-eared Hummingbird and Spotted Owl for my year list. After that I had planned to head up the Pacific coast toward Washington. But my plans were overturned when I stopped by Ted Parker’s dorm at The University of Arizona.
Ted was on the phone, keyed-up, firing questions, grinning at the answers. Finally hanging up, he told me, “You’re not going to like this. There’s a Spotted Redshank at Brigantine!”
“Right,” I said. “And I saw a flock of Rowlett’s Owlets tunneling into the science library, too.”
“No, I’m serious,” he persisted. “It was found yesterday. Dozens of birders went over there today and saw it. Too bad it didn’t show up a month ago, when we were there, hey?”
So he was not joking. A Spotted Redshank! This Old World sandpiper had turned up only a very few times in North America; there were just a couple of confirmed records then, from the Northeast and from Alaska.
Spotted Redshank was one of those fine species that combined rarity with good looks. A large sandpiper of the genus Tringa, it resembled our Greater Yellowlegs, but it had red legs and a touch of red on the bill. In winter it was silvery gray; in breeding plumage it was a velvety purplish black with a sprinkle of small white spots. In a family of creatures that were so subtle or downright dull, the Spotted Redshank stood out as that true rarity, an unmistakable bird.
I was mulling this over, damning the two-thousand-plus miles that lay between me and the Brigantine refuge in New Jersey, when Mark Robbins walked in. When he heard the news, he collapsed into a chair. “Oh, man,” he said. “I’ve looked at the picture of that in the European guide so many times…Is it still in breeding plumage, this late in the season?”
“Partly,” said Ted. “They said it was changing now – still black on the underparts, and still with some black around the head and neck. Maybe halfway through the molt.”
“Me, I wouldn’t care what plumage it was in,” said Mark. “If I didn’t have classes …” He looked up at me. “Guess you’re off for New Jersey now, right?”
Up to that moment I had not really considered it. But why shouldn’t I go to Seattle by way of Atlantic City? I got up and started pacing the room. “Wonder how long the bird’s going to stay around?”
Parker laughed. “There’s no way to predict that. But Brigantine’s sometimes a good ‘holding’ spot. Some rarities have stayed for months. Most of them don’t, obviously. But if you decide not to go, you’ll find out later that it stayed a couple of weeks, and was seen by everyone who went for it.”
I continued pacing. “That’s a lot of time, a lot of thumbing for one bird. Or for no bird. No logical basis for a decision.” Then something occurred to me. “Hey! Ted! Do you recall – last month at Brigantine, you remember how I was talking about Spotted Redshank, predicting that we’d see one?”
“How could I forget? We were all sick of it.”
“All right. You know how I just fantasize about one incredible rarity at a time. That day at Brig, there were all kinds of rare waterbirds I could have been babbling about, but the Spotted Redshank was the one I picked. Don’t you see, man? It’s a sign!”
“If that’s your idea of logic, I’m glad you’re not the president,” said Mark.
But I was already digging into my backpack for the right road maps. “It can be done,” I announced. “I can be in New Jersey in two or three days. I’ll leave tonight.”
It was near midnight Sunday when Mark and Ted drove me out to the freeway. In a way, the scene was a replay of another night eight months earlier: back in January, when I started out to go for the Loggerhead Kingbird in Florida. Once again, the guys were dropping me off at the freeway interchange on South Stone. Once again, I was in a hurry, going for a staked-out rarity that might not stay long. Once again, I was going all the way across the continent to seek a single bird.
As I soon discovered, this was to be a replay of the Loggerhead Kingbird trip in another way. Once again, right when I wanted all possible speed, my luck turned bad. Just as it had in January. The song came back to mind: You’ll go back, Jack, and do it again.
Luck on the road could be defined in several ways. For the recreational thumbers, good luck would mean good times, parties on the road. For others, the derelicts who were going away rather than going to anyplace, good luck would mean a level of comfort, so as not to disrupt their hazy dreams. For me, good luck simply meant getting there fast. That September trek from Tucson to Brigantine would have been considered, by any criterion, a bad trip: I didn’t maintain any level of comfort, and altogether it took me far too long to get to New Jersey.
When sunrise Monday found me standing a scant twenty miles east of Tucson, I told myself that I was just getting spoiled. This was the first long-distance hitching I’d had to do in a month. Starting in August I’d had rides with other birders and friends from Cape May to New England, then to Tucson, and then to California and Mexico. Between these trips, my sorties by thumb had been short. Now, back on the long haul, I reaffirmed what I already knew: thumbing across the continent was vastly different from driving across.
About the time I was moving, finally, into the Texas panhandle, I ran into a scatter of rain showers. I might have known: it was mid-September, and the first fall weather was advancing across the continent. The weather got worse as I continued east. Lines of thunderstorms, one after another, intersected my route across the Midwestern states; and as I approached the Pennsylvania border, weather reports on the car radios would tell me that rain blanketed the mid-Atlantic states, solid rain from the Appalachians east.
Fall weather fronts were bringing cooler temperatures as well, so I had to watch out for getting soaked. Pneumonia would slow me down. Besides, most drivers seemed disinclined to pick up sopping wet hitchhikers. So from Texas on, I was watching the sky as warily as I watched for the police.
For a while, I was lucky. A pattern developed: I would be let off on a roadside still wet from rain, under skies that foretold more rain any moment, but after a long wait I would get another ride just before the shower began. The ride – whether for five miles or for a hundred – would take me through the downpour to another spot where it was, at that moment, not raining. Then the sequence would repeat. I won every round of this rainfall roulette across Oklahoma, but I knew the weather must take the lead eventually. It did. A short distance into Missouri rain caught me out, soaking me to the skin before I could reach the shelter of the nearest overpass.
From there east it was raining nearly every time I was let off – and I was let off far too often. Usually, hitching on Interstate 70, I would eventually catch a long ride, but on that trip to New Jersey the long ride never materialized. It was nearly all short hops: ten, twenty, maybe fifty miles in which to dry out and warm up a little, and then I’d be out on the rainy roadside again.
In the long Indiana night I stood for five hours beneath an overpass where the trucks pounded through, trailing plumes of mist from the wet pavement, so that I remained thoroughly wet even though I was out of the falling rain itself. Tired, I was tempted to crawl up to a high dry corner under the bridge and fall asleep. But I had to keep thumbing; I was still in a hurry, even though my quest was beginning to seem more and more absurd. Asked where was I going, where was I coming from, I’d mumble, “Atlantic City. Sure, it’s fun. Got friends there. No, not far; just coming from St. Louis. From Indianapolis. Left a week ago. Not in any hurry…” Anything was easier than trying to explain where I was really going and why.
Well into Pennsylvania I finally got a decent ride, a couple of hundred miles’ worth, with a casual longhair from Seattle. He was smoking a pipe of some illegal substance and listening to tapes by Blue Oyster Cult, and we talked about theories of education, and about why modern poetry might have abandoned the strict meter of former days. After a while, in this context, my trip almost began to make sense. So I told him about it.
The guy listened, intrigued. He had never heard of any such thing- but as with most children of the sixties, he had no trouble handling the idea. There were many paths in life, after all. If some character wanted to thumb 2,500 miles to look at one individual bird, this was a pursuit that did no harm to anyone. Far out, he said.
So I kept talking about this bird from across the water…no telling what winds had driven it, what path had brought it to the Jersey shore. Then by another coincidence, some watcher had chanced upon this Spotted Redshank. I could picture it: the discovery. The image coming into focus, the birder’s hands beginning to shake because he knows there is only one big sandpiper that could show so much black in the plumage. Then the dash to the nearest telephone: No kidding – a Spotted Redshank at Brigantine. More telephones ringing, in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, the unofficial birding grapevine swinging into action. The next day, the first wave of cognoscenti descending on the refuge, to locate the bird and agree: No question – a Spotted Redshank at Brigantine. The message would have been put on the local Rare Bird alerts, from which the news would reach a wider circle of birders. During the week, a second wave of observers would come, those who could get away on weekdays. And then on the weekend following the initial discovery – which was tomorrow, damn it, because it had taken me all week to get across the country and it was now Friday – tomorrow, I told the guy, there should be a crowd at Brigantine, all looking for this one bird.
“Heavy,” said the dude. The whole thing was obviously crazy enough to appeal to him. “Must be one fine-looking bird, huh?”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “Pretty striking. Plus the fact that it’s European. Usually can’t see it around here at all.”
“Do the birds in Europe just look better than the ones in Arizona?”
“You can’t make that much of a distinction,” I told him. “Once you get into it, any bird looks good. I even like to look at sparrows. But say I’m an American birder who’s probably never going to go to Europe – if I ever want to see a Spotted Redshank, I’ve gotta get down to Brigantine right now. And when you see something that you know is a once-in-a-lifetime bird, that makes it beautiful, no matter what the hell it actually looks like.”
And now the guy was starting to smile, a look of understanding lighting his face. “I get it, man,” he said. “I really do get it. It’s like the line from the Beatles, right?” He started tapping out a slow drum solo on the edge of his steering wheel. “Like what John Lennon wrote in ‘Come Together’: this bird, he’s ‘got to be good-looking cuz he’s so hard to see!’ Am I right?”
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.
In past conversations with Harold Axtell I had always been a little amused by his obsession with fine points that had seemed unnecessary, even trivial. But now I saw their practical application. Not every bird could be named by simple field marks. Sometimes one had to know the birds extremely well to be able to name them.
What about those birders who had checked off the Brigantine bird as a Spotted Redshank? Many of them were good birders, and every one of them, no doubt, had already had Greater Yellowlegs on their lists. Sure, they knew the yellowlegs. But they didn’t really know it, not in fine detail, as Axtell did. Certainly I did not know the bird at that level either.
Looking back, it seemed I had been lucky not to arrive in New Jersey earlier. With really good luck crossing the continent, I might have made it in three days - it had happened before. I might have arrived Wednesday evening, seen the bird and missed Axtell, and gone away with a super-rare redshank written on my list…because I would never have identified this bird correctly. My approach, my knowledge were just too superficial.
It was late September, and three-quarters of my Big Year had passed already. In the three months that remained, I would be criss-crossing the continent yet again, in search of only a handful of new species. But I resolved to look at birds more carefully from now on, look at them all, common or rare, to see if I could really get to know them. It was the beginning of the end of my interest in listing.