This story originally appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest.
A winged cloud flew overhead.
I looked up. I had to. I’m a birder.
Starlings. If I had a dollar for every starling I’ve seen, I’d start seeing a lot more starlings.
I raised my binoculars toward the birds. They looked odd. I quickly discovered why. There was an unexcused absence of a binocular eyecup.
I hoped that the missing eyecup had remained in the car. I supposed that I needed to dab a bit of glue on it. I groused a bit as I trudged to my vehicle parked just beyond easy walking distance. Then I thought of all those people who had no eyecups.
I buy used binoculars at auctions. I bid at silent auctions. I aim to buy binoculars. Every hammer finds a nail, which means I purchase binoculars that are happily given to kids to keep or as loaners to use during nature walks.
One fine morning during my early teen years, I was admiring the battered binoculars of a friend.
He told me of his plans to head out West, a place he’d never been. “Out West” brought visions of the Rocky Mountains, Wyatt Earp, and water ouzels to me. The water ouzel is what I called the American dipper. I wasn’t alone. Many people called them water ouzels. I’d read about water ouzels. I’d never seen one, but I liked them anyway. I wanted to play the guitar in a garage band called The Water Ouzels. We’d make a cassette tape of our songs, sell 19 copies to relatives and girlfriends, and then spend the rest of our lives living in our parents’ basements.
He’d never seen a water ouzel, either. I told him everything I knew about water ouzels. That didn’t take long. It didn’t take me long to tell everything I knew about anything.
The water ouzel piqued his interest in a way that things sometimes do for no apparent reason. He admitted that although he wanted to head out West, he seldom made it as far as the western edge of Minnesota. If the past were any gauge of the future, he probably wouldn’t be going out West. He told me that he was going to have to see a water ouzel in Minnesota. Not only that, he was going to see one in the nearby Le Sueur River.
Thanks to that water ouzel that he’d never seen, he became a birder, with gusts up to being a gung-ho birder. Every day, he took his old binoculars that had long ago shed their brand name and checked the narrow river for water ouzels. Each day, he saw none. Week after week, month after month, year after year, not a single water ouzel. That was okay. It gave him something to hope for. My father told me that a man needs somewhere to go, something to do, and something to hope for every day.
The search for a water ouzel might sound goofy, but goofiness is part of a birder’s job description.
When I was a boy, my father gave me four cat’s eye marbles. He told me to carry them in my pocket at all times. How was I going to take care of four marbles? I couldn’t even come home from school with two mittens still in my possession. I asked Dad what would happen if I lost all my marbles.
Dad replied, “You’d be a birder.”
Each year, I drive down a beautiful road made bad by snow to the Chilkoot River in Alaska to see an American dipper. The river rushes madly as a chunky, gray songbird walks the bottom in search of food. Emerging from gelid water must encourage singing as the dipper flies up onto a rock and sings the sweet and hearty song of a mythical thrush/wren hybrid. It’s a lovely concert that goes on and on. The ouzel sings as if it’s focus testing a new song.
My friend never accompanied me to Alaska. It was too far out West for him.
Years went by. His wife died. That slowed him, but he kept searching. Walking comes naturally to a birder. In his delightful book A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean wrote, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” That can apply to birding, too. He walked so much in search of an ouzel that there were Sunday mornings when he was unable to get to church. His wife wouldn’t have been happy about that. It would have bothered her. She wouldn’t have said anything, but she’d have winced for a few days. He put many miles on countless pairs of shoes walking that rough, riparian strip. He saw a plethora of birds, but no water ouzels. He continued seeking an ouzel until not long before his death. We make plans to live forever. It’s a wasted effort. His pursuit of that bird was something talked about at his wake.
When his son was a teen, he thought his father odd. That’s the job of a teenager. Later in life, he found his father’s peculiarity endearing. The son wasn’t a birder. He was anything but one. He preferred filling his free time with golfing, bowling, or watching televised sports.
His son inherited everything his father had owned, including the ancient binoculars.
Years later, I was walking along the Le Sueur River, wearing the uniform of a birder, which is a gathering of any clothes that can’t be put on wrong, when I encountered the son. He saw by my garb that I was either birding or on my way to a square dance. He had his father’s aged binoculars hanging from his neck.
“You haven’t seen an American dipper around here, have you?” he asked.
“No,” I said, my smile refusing to hide. “Not a single water ouzel.”
“Well, I’ll keep looking,” said the son.
I hope he does.
There is no time limit on dreams.
Al Batt is a writer, speaker, storyteller, and humorist. His first book is a collection of his stories, A Life Gone to the Birds, published by BWD Press.